Kneath Heard joined the JWOC team as our Managing Director in 2015, and became our Executive Director in 2018. As he is preparing to leave JWOC at the end of the year, we sat down with him to talk about his highlights, biggest areas of learning, and plans for the future.

1. What were some of your highlights as JWOC’s Director?

Easily, my favorite highlight has been working with the team in Cambodia. When I first came to JWOC I had visions of being in the villages and classrooms working directly with our students, but I quickly realized this is not where I was needed. We already had an amazing local team who understood the culture and context we work in better than I ever will. It was when I shifted all my attention to helping support these inspiring local leaders to grow professionally and deliver their own projects that I found my true purpose, and of course, the highlight of this journey was watching Konthea move through the organization from Project Coordinator to Managing Director. It might sound strange, but the feeling of no longer being needed to lead JWOC was awesome. I’m grateful to all my team in Cambodia, I learned so much from all of you.

Another highlight was the 2019 Scholarship graduation party. Not because of the dancing, although I do consider myself an expert in dancing in a circle now (if you know, you know), but because I interviewed many of the students as they applied for a scholarship in my first week at JWOC back in 2015. I watched them grow over four years and had the pleasure of witnessing impact firsthand. If you want to invest in an organization that works, look no further than JWOC – impact takes time, but it is worth the wait. 

2019 Graduation Ceremony

A special mention to all the families who hosted me in the 2017 U.S fundraising tour. It was such a pleasure meeting JWOC donors and spending time with them (it was pretty cool seeing so much of the U.S too). I built some great relationships and learned so much about our supporters. I hope that once travel is safe again other members of the JWOC team will have this opportunity, as it brings JWOC and its supporters closer together, strengthening ties between the JWOC family. 

2. While spearheading the new strategy, what did you envision for JWOC?

To be blunt, I have seen a lot of bad development since I first entered the sector 7 years ago. A lot of projects are designed (often outside of the target country) under the assumption that we know what is best for people, and this is just plain wrong. We need to learn to be quiet and listen to those who are closest to the issue. This is something JWOC has always been good at, so it is not so much what I envisioned for JWOC, but what our youth envisioned for their own future. The strategy was just putting their words into a PowerPoint slide, but bringing it to life was slightly harder and wouldn’t have been possible without my amazing team and the students.

When I told people that part of the plan was to reduce the number of JWOC beneficiaries from 1,000+ to less than 200 they looked at me like I was mad. People would ask, ‘’what will the donors say?”, but luckily I was blessed to have a Board of Directors that understood the need to change. They knew our strength was working with youth and that is where we should spend our energy. The focus on quality over quantity will boost our impact, and guess what? The donors totally understood that. JWOC’s donors are the best! I hope other organizations will learn from this experience.

I believe the Better Futures Program has the greatest potential to generate positive change in Cambodia, and I’ll be following JWOC closely to see how it grows in the next few years. 

3. What was one of your biggest challenges?

Aside from student issues, fundraising and floods… the biggest challenge was knowing when to leave. In 2018, I was about to go, I had applied for other jobs and we had posted mine online, and then Asim (now the board Chairperson) came to Cambodia and after lunch together (I’m sure it was something exotic, he is a real food snob), he said to me, “It sounds like you have unfinished business”. He was right, and it was tough because I had been working towards this exit date, but the timing wasn’t right for me or JWOC. Subsequently, I stayed, and the new strategy and localization came to fruition. As I mentioned before, leaving this time will not be a challenge. Konthea and Keisha will bring new energy to JWOC and I have no doubt they will succeed. 

4. What is the most important thing you learned while at JWOC?

I learned to be a leader. Erin and Jane (former Board Members and Executive Directors) took a chance on me. Even with my previous experience, the role was a big step up. It was through their guidance and the support of Luisa (in-country adviser) that I grew into the role and by the end, I think I did a pretty decent job of it. The best lesson was to learn from my mistakes and to not be afraid to admit I was wrong – this was probably a little frustrating for Keisha as I do have a habit of changing my mind about fundraising strategies, a lot! 

JWOC Team in 2015

5. What are you looking forward to doing next?

I’m going to take a little break and then explore some new opportunities (in Cambodia a.ka. home). I’m still passionate about fighting inequality, and that is what I’ll dedicate my life to. Once it is safe, I hope to visit England to see my family (including some new members) and enjoy some live football (soccer).

I’m also looking forward to seeing the future developments of JWOC and will continue to support the organization (without the pressure of being the director) long into the future. 

6. Anything else you would like to add?

Yes, click the link and support my last Race4Youth. Think of it as a goodbye gift. Thanks!

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