Building Tomorrow: It Takes a Village
Oprah started one school in Africa. Indy nonprofit Building Tomorrow has opened 18 and counting. Here’s how founder George Srour developed a new template for addressing the world’s education crisis—and why Bill Clinton is helping.
Bill Clinton wanted to meet Bill Clinton. The former president had four hours before his plane left Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport, and he hoped someone could locate a young man named Bill Clinton in the East African country of 36 million people before wheels-up. The boy had been just a few days old when an American convoy arrived in his village in 1998 and the POTUS cradled him for a photo op. Now it was 2012, and Clinton, back in the area on business for his foundation, had just read in the newspaper that the boy’s mother had gone on to name the baby “Bill Clinton Kaligani.” The elder Clinton wanted to reunite.
So Clinton’s handlers made a call. Not to President Yoweri Museveni, whom he was meeting with later that day. Not to the American embassy.
George Srour’s iPhone rang.
The Hoosier had met Clinton that morning, when a 19-car caravan escorting the world leader and daughter Chelsea arrived at the Building Tomorrow Academy of Gita, a backcountry primary school for kids through seventh grade. Srour started the Indy-based nonprofit Building Tomorrow to construct these types of schools in rural Uganda, a country about the size of Montana, and in 2011 he joined the Clinton Global Initiative—which connects governments and people working on the same international problems—looking for more funding and partners. A year later, Clinton wanted to see a Building Tomorrow academy for himself while in Africa to check out some of the most-promising work by CGI members. He had to be torn away from the classrooms when the visit ticked well over its allotted time.
Clinton was impressed. Uganda, home to the world’s largest population under the age of 15, struggles to educate its children. In rural areas, a bench under a tree or a primitive hut often serves as a government-run classroom. In 2000, the United Nations—in an attempt to educate the 57 million kids in the world who lacked access to a formal school—set a 15-year goal to get each of those kids into a classroom. The Clinton Global Initiative, plus an innumerable set of charities, governments, and foundations, has focused on the problem since. For its part, BT hadn’t built just one school in a needy area, but seven, and five more were under construction. Along the way, Srour had developed a reliable, affordable template that could prove useful the world over: Communities fronted the land, and then parents and grandparents performed all of the manual labor and managed the school, an empowering process. Every academy was public, staffed and accredited by the government, unlike the private schools favored by other nonprofits and the Oprahs of the world.
Before leaving, Clinton asked Srour: “What do you need?”
“Money,” the 28-year-old answered.
Clinton didn’t reply. But hours later, it was he who needed a favor. Srour handed the phone to BT’s country director, Joseph Kaliisa, the man in charge of operations in his native Uganda. Kaliisa made a few calls and tracked down the boy in the Jinja district, three hours from the airstrip. Kaliisa called the local police, who escorted the lanky boy to a plane—his first time flying—so he could land in time to meet his namesake. The two discussed the boy’s aspiration to become a doctor. Clinton offered to pay for the rest of his education.
Srour and Kaliisa missed the reunion, but they didn’t have to wait long to learn Clinton had taken Srour’s request seriously. Two months later, CGI lined up $500,000 to go toward BT’s goal of building 60 schools by 2016, an unprecedented rate of 10 new schools a year that would result in seats for 15,000 children. The windfall wouldn’t foot the whole bill, though, or even a quarter. Srour would have to find the rest—a tall order, certainly, but exactly the kind of audacious challenge the entrepreneur had repeatedly met as he learned how to change the world.
Srour first became interested in social causes while growing up in Indianapolis. As a teenage member of Y-Press, The Indianapolis Star’s youth press corps, he reported on serious issues in Mexico and Alaska. South of the border, he ventured, supervised, into sewage tunnels looking for kids who used them to cross into the United States. “We were trained to believe that there was no one better” for the job, Srour says of asking important questions and expecting to be taken seriously. “We all kind of drank the Kool-Aid.” Through those grim situations, Y-Press also taught him “the world outside of the one I knew was not very glamorous.”
By comparison, his life in Indy was one of privilege. Srour’s parents—Edward, an Indiana University cancer researcher, and Samar, who works for Washington Township Schools—raised him and their daughter, Maria, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood on the north side, not too far from their church, Second Presbyterian. The soft-spoken couple stressed mission trips through the church’s youth program and took the kids to their native Lebanon. Traveling internationally was typical among the Second Presbyterian congregation, a predominantly wealthy group with its share of powerful members. Bill Hudnut was a pastor there before he was elected mayor, and Peyton Manning attended.
Srour wanted to effect change through journalism—a group of media educators had named him the national student journalist of the year when he was at North Central High School, and he started a newspaper (that still exists) at the College of William & Mary. But for a young person of his intelligence and drive, the kind of connections you make at a church like Second Pres could inspire bigger dreams. One day, home from school, he listened to church member Jim Morris address the congregation. Morris was in the middle of his five-year post as head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, based in Rome; he’d been Richard Lugar’s chief of staff in the mayor’s office, president of the Lilly Endowment, and CEO of the Indianapolis Water Company. Srour, who had also been studying service leadership at William & Mary, was impressed that someone from his hometown was running the world’s largest hunger-relief effort. He worked his church connections to get a foot in the door at the World Food Programme and landed an internship in Italy. The summer after his junior year, in 2004, his internship took him to Uganda. There, Srour was struck by stories of routine tragedies, like the woman who died after misreading simple instructions on her prescription bottle. “These anecdotes showed that unless people are educated, even the greatest interventions can come up short,” he says. “I thought, we’ve got to make sure everybody gets a chance to go to school. And that just doesn’t happen.”
Srour worked closely with Meeting Point, a school for HIV-positive kids in the chaotic capital of Kampala, and when he returned to William & Mary, he decided to raise $10,000 to rebuild the school’s termite-infested first floor. He called the late-fall campaign Christmas in Kampala and teased it with signs that said merely “$1.81.” Later, flyers explained the student body could build a school in Uganda if each person donated that amount.
His message worked. Christmas in Kampala quadrupled Srour’s goal to $45,000; Srour’s knack for simple, powerful messages and tangible results had spoken to his classmates. Why couldn’t he do it again at other colleges? There was no one, he believed, better for the job.
While his friends followed the conventional path to grad school or service work with groups like Teach for America, Srour did neither as graduation loomed. Instead, he built on his vision for tapping college kids to raise money for African schools with the help of the inaugural William E. Simon Fellowship for Noble Purpose (no relation to the Indy Simons). The cash award wasn’t enough to live on, though, so in the summer of 2005, Srour moved back to his parents’ house near Spring Mill Road, started substitute teaching, and dedicated most of his spare time to Uganda.
Organizing his venture came naturally. Clutter, one close friend says, is not part of Srour’s life. Even his handwriting was tidy enough to turn into his new nonprofit’s main font. But when it came time to choose his Building Tomorrow job title, he went with something less rigid: chief dreamer.
In 2006, Srour returned to Uganda to network with contacts he’d made during his internship. He wanted to stay in the States, raising money and promoting Uganda’s story, so he needed a partner native to the country to carry out his vision. Someone whom contractors wouldn’t try to price-gouge as they would an American. Someone who knew Ugandan culture, and who shared Srour’s passion for reform.
Word of Srour’s plans had gotten around his network of relief agencies, and someone approached him with a recommendation: the 36-year-old Kaliisa, who had been working with orphans and gangs in Kampala’s slums.
After some initial phone calls, Srour and Kaliisa met for the first time in early 2006, in Kampala. Srour proposed building schools for HIV-positive kids. Kaliisa called it “the dumbest idea anyone has ever brought to Uganda.” A special school would stigmatize those students, he said. Srour appreciated Kaliisa’s candor—and his local contacts. “He was the guy you wanted running the show,” Srour says. “We’d walk down the street and never get to where we were going because he’d see so many people he knew in a mile stretch.”
Srour hired Kaliisa, and together they honed Building Tomorrow’s mission. They focused on providing access to a school in rural areas that didn’t have one. They also agreed community members should build the schools themselves—hiring a crew would be faster, but they hoped an investment of labor and time would breed pride in and commitment to the project. Srour met with the U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Jimmy Kolker, who was impressed by Srour’s idea of mobilizing American college students to fundraise. “So many of them have studied abroad and have a connection to overseas causes,” says Kolker. “I’d been in Africa for 12 or 13 years, and he was the first, in my opinion, who really seized what I think is a 21st-century interest among his generation to be involved internationally in an active way.”
In the spring of 2006, Srour returned to William & Mary to dine with commencement speaker Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Srour talked about the Meeting Point renovation—and shared a photo of himself and Tutu from 1994. He had been just 11 years old when the Y-Pressers had tried to get an interview with the South African leader on a visit to Indy. The cub reporters had waited with professional media in the Hyatt’s lobby until Tutu emerged, and Tutu had been so impressed with the young journalists’ moxie that he gave them an exclusive.
Tutu cackled at the snapshot. “He joked that it seemed like he was taller than me,” Srour says, “which he can’t say about many people.” The ice broken, Srour asked him to serve as BT’s honorary chairman, knowing Tutu considered education an essential human right. Tutu agreed.
Srour’s college friends helped him launch BT campus chapters at their grad schools. Some of his most instrumental supporters, though, were Hoosiers. Despite the distance between Indy and Uganda, Srour found valuable input here; his social network and church community formed a group of highly connected, educated, and globally aware types who loved his passion for BT. Paul Knapp, CEO of the Young & Laramore advertising agency, heard of Srour thanks to their mutual interest in Africa. (Knapp’s three children had all done humanitarian work there.) After meeting, Knapp offered Srour office space in Y&L’s building, the gorgeously restored School No. 9 downtown—a historic schoolhouse far more sophisticated 100 years ago than Uganda’s schools are now.
Second Pres member Michael Downs ran Kiwanis International, a volunteer agency based in Indy, and also wanted to help. Key Club International, Kiwanis’s high-school group, coordinated a fundraiser among its 150 chapters in November 2006 and collected $40,000 in a week.
By then, Srour and Kaliisa knew they would build in areas outside of Kampala, amid farmland accessed only by rough, red-clay roads. Kaliisa would oversee community engagement and construction while Srour handled administration and fundraising in Indy. By the end of 2006, they had a plan and enough money for the first two schools.
Now they just needed the Ugandan government to get on board.
Uganda didn’t have a formal education strategy until 1997, when—based on President Museveni’s campaign promise to abolish primary-school tuition—it established the Universal Primary Education program and became one of the first countries on the continent to guarantee free schooling. Until then, like most African nations, Uganda had relied on churches and charities to build classrooms. Now there would be a budget for school construction and teachers.
UPE schools popped up around the country, and Uganda’s primary-school population more than doubled by 2003. This created a new crisis: overcrowded classrooms with unqualified teachers. Most children didn’t even learn the fundamentals before teachers advanced them to the next grade level, simply to manage class sizes. Plus, Kaliisa says, most of these schools weren’t really free. Parents were often hit with hidden costs, like uniforms and books, even though the government was supposed to provide those necessities.
Srour and Kaliisa thought BT could do much better, but they didn’t want to prop up schools long-term. The schools should be self-sustaining, and for that reason, they needed to be public—accredited and staffed by the Ministry of Education.
Kaliisa approached education officials in the area where he wanted to build the first academy, the community of Lutisi, 45 miles from Kampala. They were open to the idea (the government still welcomed outside assistance for education) but asked BT to just hand over money to fund a school.
Srour and Kaliisa balked. They’d been privy to the office’s budget, which slated more than $150,000 to construct each school, an astronomical price for shoddy results, they thought. Based on their research, they believed a superior building should cost around $40,000. Eventually, local education officials relented and let BT proceed with its own school.
Kaliisa initiated talks with Lutisi-area residents. BT would require 20,000 hours of manual labor, divided among the villages the school would serve. But the community was suspicious. They’d been disappointed by nonprofits (and fellow Ugandans) before. “Rural areas are normally cheated by organizations that go there and ask for money”—for a hospital or orphanage that never materializes, Kaliisa says.
After about six months—by mid-2007—Kaliisa had made enough allies to buy a few acres of land, hire a contractor to provide blueprints, and form a volunteer construction committee. They broke ground in November 2007 and built the foundation—which the unskilled workers promptly put in the wrong place.
The learning curve continued. Older women, mostly grandmothers of future students, were the most enthusiastic volunteers, but they tuckered out easily. The rainy season interrupted work. So did funerals, because local custom required a few days of mourning. On market days, many workers didn’t show up.
When completed in May 2008, the U-shaped concrete building was by far the most sophisticated structure most residents had ever seen—even without plumbing and electricity. There were 10 rooms for 325 students and separate latrines for girls and boys. The Ministry of Education hired teachers, with parental input, and furnished the school with chalkboards, some books, and desks. Parents were responsible for uniforms and lunch. After laying bricks and digging latrines (an amenity missing from the most primitive schools, a deterrent for teacher attendance), the locals felt like the school was theirs, just at Srour and Kaliisa had hoped.
The second school, funded by Butler University students, opened a few weeks later. And by early 2011, BT had launched six academies and dozens of campus chapters to raise funds. Srour and Kaliisa’s insistence on local involvement was paying dividends. They stopped buying land and required communities to donate three acres, even though property is the most valuable commodity in Uganda. In turn, locals learned from the process when BT encouraged them to take some matters into their own hands. One remote community convinced the government to build a road so BT could bring in its supplies; 18 months later, the school broke ground. Another community couldn’t mix concrete because the water was too salty. They staged a sit-in at a government office, Srour says, until officials promised more water if the locals would dig a trench to hold it. Kaliisa found a donated tarp to line the pit, and within a few days, water arrived and construction resumed.
Still, Srour wouldn’t celebrate. As the template came together in Africa, he contended with connecting Americans back here to Uganda’s plight. Srour’s Building Tomorrow campus chapters and his Indianapolis connections came through bit by bit (Jim Morris once made a couple of calls to compensate for a $50,000 shortfall in one chapter’s fundraising goal). But an area so far away, one that prospective donors couldn’t easily see for themselves, remained a tough sell.
All it took, though, was one person to give Srour the break he needed.
Make that two people.
The first, someone Srour contractually can’t identify, gifted Building Tomorrow with an invitation-only, $20,000-a-year membership to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011. The fee gave Srour access to CGI’s annual conference that September, where CGI required he—along with multinational corporations and other upstart nonprofits—make a “commitment to action,” a measurable goal. Srour pledged to build 60 schools in Uganda by 2016, more than doubling BT’s pace.
The second person, Bill Clinton, developed an interest in BT’s community-engagement model sometime after the conference, which led to his visit in July 2012. Did Srour ever expect the former president to—“Nope,” he interrupts. “Never thought Clinton himself would take notice.”
Not only did Clinton notice Building Tomorrow, but he also worked quickly after his 2012 visit to Gita. Two months later, when Srour arrived at the annual CGI conference in New York, he was aware that BT would receive a pledge of $110,000 to $250,000 from CGI partners—and he quickly learned that London’s Rumi Foundation, started by a Ugandan, had matched the commitment to make it $500,000.
Srour didn’t tell a soul back home. The next day, he joined Clinton onstage for a ceremony to honor a few new funding recipients. Clinton put on his eyeglasses to read a script on his podium.
Uganda, he explained with eyes downcast, is the second-fastest-growing country in the world, and BT supports education there by constructing academies for $60,000. Clinton lifted his gaze and wagged his left index finger. “That’s less than a third of what the government spends to build a school for the same number of people, and they get community buy-in.” He returned to the script, then suddenly looked at the audience again. “If it sounds like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because I’ve actually been to one of the schools. And I saw two classes with teachers that I would have been thrilled”—he stabbed a finger upward—“to teach my daughter. So this is a very big deal.”
Clinton grew more animated. “I want to be quite explicit here,” he said, chopping both hands up and down for emphasis. “If the government of Uganda has to build these schools themselves”—chop—“under the model they’re using”—chop—“it will take them forever”—chop—“and a day”—chop—“to get universal education in rural areas.” He swung his hands toward Srour, standing six feet away. “If BT can go build the schools, the government of Uganda will pay the salaries of the teachers and make sure they are trained when they get to the area.” He explained more about ways the model benefits Uganda and eventually threw up his hands. “This,” he said with a chuckle, “this is a fabulous deal, and somehow, when he was a young man, George Srour found Uganda, and he never let it go, and I am profoundly grateful.”
By the end of Clinton’s off-the-cuff remarks, Srour’s phone was vibrating in his pocket with congratulatory texts from friends watching a live stream online. But in the next weeks and months, his phone didn’t ring off the hook. Word of the $500,000 gift didn’t extend much beyond Srour’s circle of social entrepreneurs. The local media barely reported on his big moment in the spotlight with Clinton—publicity that would have helped the normally reticent Srour avoid having to promote himself. Even fewer people heard about the sequel that unfolded in Dubai in March 2014. Srour was in an auditorium during an education conference when Clinton, the keynote speaker, started unexpectedly praising Building Tomorrow. Later that day, Clinton invited Srour to sit with him at dinner. Srour found himself with the former prime minister of Greece and the ex-president of Chile, listening to Clinton tell stories about Nelson Mandela.
The tale made Building Tomorrow’s newsletter, but again, not the news. Which might explain why BT still has to hustle for the money the group needs to scale up in a hurry.
Shovels might move Earth in Uganda, but a different type of muscle was at work in Indianapolis this past April, when donors, Second Pres members, and Srour’s closest friends gathered in the Artsgarden for the annual Build-a-School Night. Srour’s comments at the podium were brief and self-effacing. “The first Build-a-School Night was concocted as a way to get me to move out of my parents’ house seven years ago,” he joked. “I had no idea there would be a second.”
For all his remarkable strengths, the leadership and discipline, Srour abhors self-promotion. When his friend Patrick Herrel of the Indy-based Mind Trust told him about making the Forbes “30 Under 30” for education in 2012, Srour didn’t mention that he’d also made the list of social entrepreneurs. Herrel only found out when he saw it in print. Srour’s reserved nature might keep BT under the radar and hinder potential funding, but his humility plays well with the Build-a-School Night crowd, which raised a record $80,000 that evening.
Still, 10 years on, Srour can become frustrated with the realities of working in Uganda, where—despite the finely tuned work of Kaliisa and his local staff of 11—progress can move excruciatingly slow. Henry, the logistics manager, e-mailed in early June to report a snafu with a delivery of bricks he had been driving to the Butiti construction site—school number 18. His truck broke down at 2 a.m., with no help nearby. A replacement truck took a couple of hours to arrive, and Henry transferred the bricks from one vehicle to the other by the light of his cell phone. “I just realized how misguided my anger might be that we’re running two weeks behind,” Srour says. “It’s because Henry’s in the middle of nowhere, total pitch black, trying to get stuff delivered, and gets stuck in the mud. What’s he going to do?” Srour looks out his tall window in School No. 9, where he can see traffic whizzing through downtown on I-65/70. “There isn’t a car in Uganda that can move that fast.”
Srour’s persistence—the key to getting anything done in Africa, he says—doesn’t waver, and that’s a good thing. He’s going to need it to stay on track with the fundraising for the 42 schools he has committed to building in the next two-and-a-half years. BT’s model is scalable, he believes, and he says his staff in Uganda isn’t tapped out; they can handle more construction sites as soon as they are funded. The money from college chapters still funnels in—a campaign this spring appealed to mobile-friendly millennials with a challenge to pledge money to BT by posting a photo of themselves with bedhead or a video singing karaoke, a savvy tactic that raised almost $10,000—but that pipeline will never bankroll the whole operation. Still, Srour likes that campus chapters build global citizens, and he’s smart enough to know that those students might become BT donors as professionals.
Katie Zarich, an old pal from Srour’s Y-Press days, came aboard last summer, thanks to the CGI funding, to look for bigger chunks of money from foundations and individual donors. The Gates Foundation and multinational corporations with African offices, such as Coca-Cola, are in their long-range sights; BT now has the track record and the clout to knock on those doors. They need to find unrestricted funds—money they can use as they see fit. Individual donors and campus chapters usually want their dollars to go directly toward building a school, not overhead, and BT honors those wishes. But someone has to keep the lights on.
Srour and Zarich won’t find million-dollar grants here, but Indianapolis will always remain a key part of Srour’s fundraising formula. “Lutisi was largely built on the backs of [people in] Indy,” Srour says of BT’s first academy. Jim Morris thinks there are plenty of wallets yet to tap. “We’re a generous community and a wealthy community,” he says. “There are people left to be asked.” So far this year, BT finds itself on pace to meet its $1.2 million fundraising goal, an amount double 2013’s, and it has earmarked enough money to break ground on school number 25 by the end of the year.
Srour likes to attend those groundbreakings, but he’s busy even by his own standards right now, focusing some of his entrepreneurial talent on the city he loves most: Indy. He’s a member of this year’s prestigious Stanley K. Lacy leadership program, which starts meeting this month to discuss pressing social and economic issues in Central Indiana. He’s also attending CGI’s annual conference in a couple of weeks and helming a local organizing committee for the 2015 U.S. Special Olympics team, which will train here in October.
He isn’t slowing down in Uganda, though. He recently expanded Building Tomorrow’s focus to education quality by launching the BT Fellowship, a two-year program that will place Ugandan college graduates in academies to work with teachers and create innovative lesson plans. Srour has come to believe that the number of kids without school access is much higher than estimated, and one fellow can affect hundreds of children. With the U.N.’s universal-education goal certain to fall well short of its 2015 target—it would take at least 1,900 more schools to create a classroom just for every kid ages 7 to 14 in Uganda, never mind the world—Srour isn’t stingy with BT’s model. A 152-page document known as The Blueprint is available on buildingtomorrow.org, and Srour hopes other nonprofits will use it to build a classroom for every kid on the planet— what he calls “the largest humanitarian project the world has ever attempted.” So far, he’s heard of only one group, in Tanzania, doing so—despite Clinton’s repeated raves.
Satisfaction can be fleeting, even with Srour’s proven model. “Split-seconds of fulfillment” come, Srour says, when communities join together to solve a problem, like Lutisi’s new undertaking to provide housing for all its teachers, an idea the parents came up with and funded themselves. But by following The Blueprint with the same degree of boundless persistence and savvy, another social entrepreneur just might wind up with his or her own nickname chosen by a classroom full of kids grateful for their school and the chief dreamer who believed it was possible.
Srour’s is “Kirabo.”
In Ugandan, it means “gift.”
A Quick Study of Building Tomorrow’s Heralded Model
1. Raise $60,000
Funds for school construction come mostly from private donors and 25 Building Tomorrow college chapters. Individuals can create a fundraising page on BT’s website and aim for $7,000 to underwrite a single classroom.
2. Pick a site
A Building Tomorrow staffer in Uganda fields invitations from rural communities and goes door-to-door gauging prospective attendance. There should be at least 250 kids living within three kilometers of a proposed site.
3. Secure land and labor
A chosen community donates three acres and pledges 15,000 hours of labor to build the school. Volunteers sign a poster-size contract; those who can’t write their name use a fingerprint.
4. Seal the deal
Uganda’s Ministry of Education supplies a Statement of Understanding, promising to accredit the school, hire teachers, and supply desks and books.
5. Organize the labor
One of BT’s community development officers moves to the area to oversee construction, which should take five to six months. BT then establishes a PTA-like school management committee.
6. Hand over the keys
Now highly invested and empowered, community members assume responsibility for their school.