“An investment in girls’ education is an investment in a better world for all of us.”
Falcon and Girls Gotta Run Foundation have been working together since 2013, when a chance meeting between Falcon’s CEO Konrad Brits and GRRF’s former Executive Director, Kayla Nolan, presented the opportunity for Falcon to support GGRF’s scholarships for athletic excellence and provide long-term impact for communities of women in Ethiopia. As we approach International Day of the Girl 2023, we’re reflecting on the past decade of our partnership through a conversation with current Executive Director, Arbora Johnson and Director of Development, Rosie Rodriguez..
1 For those in our audiences less familiar with GGRF, introduce them to the mission? Remind us where GGRF came from, why it exists and why encouraging girls to participate in running is important in Ethiopia?
Our mission has remained the same since our founding in 2006: to empower Ethiopian girls through running and education, with the specific goals of increasing the number of girls who finish secondary school, decreasing the number of girls who marry before age 18, and increasing girls’ self-confidence.
Running is an integral part of the Ethiopian identity and at the heart of our program there. GGRF was founded based on Washington Post reporting of Ethiopian girls and women empowering themselves through running. That is such an important part of the Girls Gotta Run story – our organisation provides a spark for these girls and women to pursue their own dreams.
Although many barriers remain for females in Ethiopia, especially in rural areas, running is a gender equaliser. Ethiopian women runners are viewed as role models by everyone, which is what makes empowerment through running especially meaningful for our Student Athletes.
2 Looking back on the past decade, what have been the biggest wins and what has presented the biggest challenges?
Our biggest win is simple – seeing the impact our work has on the girls in our program. Our Athletic Scholars have delayed marriage and graduated from secondary school at a rate of 96% – more than triple the national average. This is the quantifiable impact; equally important is the increase in social support networks and self-confidence. Our participants share that they truly do feel empowered to ask questions in class and voice their opinions, and are viewed as leaders among their peers. We receive the same feedback from their teachers and parents.
The biggest challenge has been the “triple whammy” of Covid-19, civil unrest in Ethiopia, and climate change-induced food insecurity. Our dollars simply do not stretch as far as they did in 2006 or even 2019 while the demand for our services is greater than ever. As a small nonprofit, we feel good about the way our donations flow directly to our programs, but it is an ongoing challenge to keep pace with the need.
3 How’s 2023 going? What projects or events are you excited about right now?
We are very proud of our programs, now more than ever. In Bekoji, the Athletic Scholars, led by Coach Fatiya, have become a source of pride for the entire town. Walking through town with the girls on the way to running practice, we were greeted by younger kids and adults alike, who clearly take pride in the GGRF team. It is wonderful to see our girls serving as role models for an entire community.
We are excited about two developments in our Soddo program: first, the Mothers’ Savings Groups, which have been so successful in Bekoji, are off to a great start in Soddo. After launching in late 2022, 40 mothers have saved enough money to begin extending micro-loans to group members for business ventures or emergencies. One mother started a small coffee shop recently – we can’t wait to visit! We are also looking forward to having a female coach work with our athletes in Soddo, and will provide updates on this new development!
4 How many girls and mothers are involved currently in the program and what’s the process for recruitment? How do you ensure girls remain encouraged and involved?
Our core program size is 100 girls and 40 mothers in each of our 2 locations, so 200 girls and 80 mothers total. We are back to this number after Covid disruptions.
There is always high demand for our program, so we don’t need to recruit. Our staff in Ethiopia work with teachers and community leaders to enrol girls who meet our criteria: Economic need – determination on the part of the girl and her family to stay in school – interest in running and the commitment to stick with it – family support (the girls in our program live with family members).
Because our programs are small and managed by our staff directly, we know if there is an absence, and work to address the underlying issue so that our Athletic Scholars stay engaged and involved.
5 In which areas does GGRF have a presence? Do you have a local person or team on the ground?
We have programs in two regions in Ethiopia, each located about 5 hours’ drive from the capital of Addis Ababa. Bekoji is in the Oromia region – a rural, high-altitude town which is famous for producing elite distance runners. Soddo is a small city in the South – more
tropical and known for its production of tropical fruits and proximity to the tourist areas of Arba Minch and Hawassa.
Our Ethiopian team members are the best part of our organisation! Our Bekoji Coach, Fatiya, and Bekoji Program Coordinator, Sukare, have been with our program since its inception. They are community members and work closely with the schools and athletic coordinators in Bekoji to keep the program running smoothly. We also work in Bekoji with our local implementing partner, the Siiqqee Women’s Development Association. They are an Ethiopian NGO, and we hope to deepen our relationship with them in the future. They have been our Bekoji partner since very early on.
In Soddo, Kidist Daniel started working as GGRF Program Manager in early 2022, after years of related nonprofit work in Soddo, where she was born and raised. She has brought a wonderful energy to the program and has a real passion for empowering girls and women.
6 Tell us about the current sponsorship model? How has it changed or adapted in recent years from sponsoring individual girls to extending support for communities, and why is this important at this time?
A conversation with our local staff really clarified why it is important to engage our supporters in sponsoring our broader mission and the entire community, rather than the previous one-to-one sponsorship model. Our local staff told us:
Our goal is to teach the girls, and their mothers, to empower themselves. We want to stress that they have the tools to pursue their own dreams, and stick with them even in the face of adversity. It is important to give them information, assistance, and help them create a support network. But they should not feel that some rich person across the ocean “saved” them. Our Athletic Scholars don’t need to be saved – they just need a small investment in their future, which is an investment in a better world for all of us.
So while we know it is important to tell the stories of our individual girls – and are working hard to find a way to do this well – we don’t want to go back to the individual sponsorship model.
7 The work GGRF really does seems to resonate with our community of coffee roasters, but readers might wonder why a coffee company and GGRF have made such good partners over the years. It’s so common to encounter people the world over with an equal passion for coffee and running. Does coffee play a special part in the communities you work with, either directly or indirectly?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of coffee to Ethiopian culture. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee (the plant), and while much of the high-quality coffee does get exported, more of it is consumed within Ethiopia than sent overseas. This is not true of any other of the top coffee exporting countries. Coffee beans are freshly roasted, ground, and served at every home visit, small gathering or official meeting.
8 Could GGRF ever expand its program to other developing countries or is it important to keep the focus in Ethiopia for now?
We would love to expand someday to other countries in which running is a part of the culture and there is a need to support girls who are determined to stay in school. Kenya, Jamaica, and Guatemala are possibilities that have been discussed.
For now, though, we are focused on making sure our existing programs are robust.
9 What does GGRF need most of all at this time and how can people get involved?
Like any small nonprofit, we are looking to cultivate sustainable funding partnerships. We have been grateful for Falcon’s 10 years of support and many impactful introductions to your partners!
We always appreciate donations of any size, of course, including for our #IDG5K on October 11, but we also need help spreading the word about our work! We would love to have more followers on our social media, subscribers to our newsletter, and help with planning small events around the world to showcase our Athletic Scholars. Anyone interested can host a movie screening or happy hour!
We would especially love to connect with coffee companies and shops, individuals, athletes, brands, and small foundations that are passionate about empowering girls and women through sport.
10 What’s next for GGRF and what are you looking forward to, upcoming in the rest of the 2023-24 school year and beyond?
We have just formed an Advisory Council of 14 people who are passionate about our mission, many of them young athletes, and are really looking forward to engaging with the group. We also have a team running the Marine Corps Marathon in October in Washington, DC and hope to recruit more runners for more races.
We also hope to plan a trip to Ethiopia to allow supporters to run with our Athletic Scholars and experience the work we are doing.
And, of course, our main mission remains, as always, to invest in girls to empower themselves and their communities through running & education!
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to share our work with the Falcon community!