A Kenyan woman with braids and glasses speaks into a microphone
Gladys Onyango speaks at the Donor Salon in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2023

Change Isn’t Linear: Gladys Onyango, In Her Own Words

Segal Family Foundation
11 min readDec 5, 2023


An interview by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor

Listen to the audio version here.

After six wonderful years in a variety of roles, Director for Program Impact & Learning Gladys is moving on to explore new challenges. As she wraps up her chapter at Segal Family Foundation, she sat down with Sylvia to reflect on lessons learned during this journey.

You’ve had a variety of roles from when you first joined Segal up to this point. Do tell us: how did you end up in MEL (monitoring and evaluation), safeguarding, and program learning?
Thank you, Sylvia. I’ll talk about how I ended up at Segal. There was a brief period of time when I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but that passed very quickly. I knew deep in my heart that I always wanted to work with people, and so I gravitated towards social sciences. After college, I worked briefly in the development space, worked with HIV organizations, with children’s rights organizations, and ended up working in philanthropy in 2008. That was an interesting journey. I had a chance to work with a lot of human rights and social justice organizations that were eliminating the problems of the world and that were looking to hold governments accountable, pushing for transparency. Segal was a foundation I learned about through one of our grantee partners. And what excited me at that time was—after working a lot on the challenges side—you want to interact with people who are working on the solutions side. Segal has really delivered for me by giving me these six years to work with inspiring people who are illuminating injustices, pointing out what needs to change, but also working with communities and governments to work on the solutions. I feel I have a well-rounded understanding of change, not just from the perspective of problems, but also from the solutions side.

What have you enjoyed most about your time in this field?
I’ve enjoyed so many things. I’ve really enjoyed the colleagues that I work with: their passion, their generosity of spirit, their willingness to share time and ideas, their kindness. I’ve also really enjoyed the free reign, the flexibility, and autonomy that I had to conceive ideas and bring them to life — which I feel represents the spirit of Barry Segal. As founder and chairman of the foundation, he is always someone who has had a really empowering leadership style: once there’s alignment in the vision, he’s a leader who’s gotten out of the way, leaving it to the people closest to the issue and the challenges to work on the problem in the way that they know best. I’ve also really enjoyed an opportunity to support dreamers, mavericks, visionaries of all backgrounds who are working for a better world, working to improve lives, working to create ladders of opportunity in a world where there are so many crises that we are dealing with: conflicts, climate change, deepening inequalities. It can feel paralyzing, and so working with people who are actively addressing these problems has really been a source of inspiration and motivation for me.

Gladys, center, at the 2018 African Visionary Summit in Nairobi, Kenya

Wow, we are two questions in and I’m feeling so uplifted and inspired! Thank you, thank you. Your role as Director of Program Learning & Impact focused a lot on how we could improve our systems and processes to make them more equitable and efficient. What were some big learning moments or times of big change at Segal and how did you navigate them?
I would say I’ve learned a lot around the value of humility when thinking about designing systems that could work not just for the needs of Segal but also for our partners.

I’ve learned that as donors we don’t have all the answers. There’s a lot of power in listening, understanding what’s important to different stakeholders and users of our system and what they need. By taking a humble and listening approach, we are more likely to design a system that has value that has utility and that is sustainable as well.

I’ve also learned about the power of proximity. When I was working with our team and with our partners around COVID response, I remember the first couple of months of the pandemic when philanthropy was grappling with what to do, when big agencies were at a standstill. It’s the community organizations closest to people who were able to show up and provide the support that was needed. I would say I’ve also learned a lot from working with our partners and with a team around complexity and the importance of leaning into that. I’ve learned that change takes time. There are many times we’d want to see better for our partners — we’d want to see them growing faster, moving in a certain direction. But you realize by reflecting that change is a function of their efforts as leaders and teams, but it’s also a function of the right policy window opening at the right time. It’s a function of getting the right support from just the right donor at the right time. And that change isn’t linear. It’s a period; there are steps forward and there are also steps back. I’ve also learned just how to lean into complexity and be comfortable grappling with our partners and not having all the answers in a given moment.

Gladys, second from left, on a site visit with colleagues to WISER International in July 2018

Speaking of our partners, what is one of the best site visits that you’ve ever been on? And I know this might be a difficult question.
Yes, there have been so many, but my best site visit at Segal is still my first site visit. It was actually in Uganda: we went in a car and drove for many, many hours and reached the little town of Bududa on the slopes of Mount Elgon. This is a region that is in the news a lot primarily for landslides. In the middle of it was the most beautiful school with the most confident and joyful young learners that I had ever seen, I think. And when I learned about the school, I realized it had been started by the Wandas — a couple that had grown up in Bududa and always wanted to give back to their community. In a way, it really brought home for me what Segal is about. It’s about supporting the power of local vision and supporting local philanthropy that’s really intrinsic to our identity as Africans; this idea of Ubuntu and being individuals but at the same time being of community, and the fact that our partners are also people who are deeply philanthropic in their intentions. It also brought up for me that agency of vision that Segal exists to support. And there have been so many others after that, that I would also consider some of my favorites.

That’s really lovely. Oh wow, what a what an experience that must have been. A lot can happen in six years, and especially in a sector like philanthropy where we’re always learning something new, we’re always realizing something. How have you seen the philanthropy sector change or evolve in that time?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of change since I joined the space in 2008. And even during my six years at Segal, I would say the sector is changing in all the right ways. We are starting to question the top-down, project-based funding model that’s been predominant in Africa. It’s a model that delivers good projects, but it’s also not the most empowering. It’s often a model that’s delivering on priorities that have been articulated elsewhere, that might not be the most important or urgent for the people who live in those communities. I’m liking that we are moving more towards a funding model that’s grantee-centric, that gives voice and autonomy to the people whose lives we aim to benefit. I think this will build civil society and communities in a way that’s more authentic, in a way that sustains their resilience as people and as communities. The other change I’m seeing is more funding going to local and proximate organizations, and this is part of the whole conversation that has been happening around localization. I like that. And it’s very connected to Barry Segal’s vision of people who have the closest knowledge and lived experience to issues being best placed to direct funding in the most effective and sustainable way. I hope that it’s not just a wave, I’m really hoping that it’s a trend that’s going to sustain with time. I’m also really liking the diversity in terms of the faces we are seeing in philanthropy. When I started, you could have counted the number of Africans in the room when you attended a philanthropy conference but now we have so many more Africans, people from the Global South, people of color, women. And I hope that this diversity also leads to the structural changes that are going to make philanthropy more inclusive. So, we are changing in all the right ways as a sector.

Gladys, second from right, with the Segal Kenyan team in 2022

So glad to hear. If anybody has seen change in the sector, within SFF and other organizations, it’s you given the variety of roles that you’ve held since you first joined Segal. Not only have you held different positions and rotated through different aspects of the organization, but you’ve also been involved in a number of special projects in the disability sector and during COVID. Could you tell us about one that you found very motivating?
That would have to be the work we did around oxygen resilience. I remember, in 2021, Africa finally feeling the burden of COVID in terms of the number of hospitalizations we were seeing and in terms of the number of deaths that were arising as the Delta variant was really spreading. And I remember Segal and a couple of our partners sitting down and wondering how we could support some of the local community clinics and health facilities who were treating COVID patients at the time, but were really struggling from not having access to medical oxygen, vital signs monitors, and the right kind of equipment that they would have needed to support these patients. We launched a joint fundraising effort and we were able to get an additional $1.2 million which we then were able to use to procure oxygen cylinders, concentrators, the right kind of equipment. It really made a difference in terms of saving lives and building the confidence of the nurses, the clinicians, the medical officers in these facilities knowing that they had the right equipment that they could then use to care for COVID patients and save their lives. And the equipment continues to be used today, and some of it has found its way into NICUs — as you know, premature babies need oxygen because their lungs are not developed. It’s made its way into ICUs. So it’s a project that had immediate impact during COVID, but whose benefits have continued to be felt to date.

You have so many memories about your work with SFF, the places you’ve been to, and the people you’ve seen. What are some of the most special moments that you will take with you into your next journey?
There are so many… At the work level, I will treasure all the conversations that we’ve had around safeguarding which are fundamentally around how we can shift development. Development came to Africa through colonization essentially and was, for many years, something that was brought to communities where they didn’t have voice or agency. Development often meant people being alienated from their culture, alienated from their religion.

I hope that, through the safeguarding conversations, we are contributing to shifting development so that it’s not just seen as an act of charity, so that we’re looking at development as an act of solidarity with people and communities. So we’re not just looking at them as program beneficiaries but as participants with rights, with voice, and agency in the kind of support they get from partners — Segal and other foundations.

So I feel I am really proud about our safeguarding work. And then all the community-building moments for me have been powerful. When we are gathering as team, when we are gathering with our partners, the Annual General Meeting for me has always been a highlight because the problems of the world are big, they’re complex; they’re not going to be solved by one person or one organization. We need to come together to build power, build agency, speak with a bigger voice because that’s how movement happens and in those moments of communion in those moments when you are together. I feel hopeful. I feel that in as much as we have big problems in the world, we are building the agency and momentum that’s going to slowly cause the shifts that need to happen for the world to change, for big problems to be solved.

Gladys at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Jersey City, New Jersey

You know, I expected a lot when we were going into this conversation and you have given me so much more than I thought we were going to get out of this. Thank you so, so so much. I want to bring it back to the beginning and throw you a bonus question: you said you were going to be a scientist. What type of scientist would you have been if you had gone down that path?
I think it would still have been something to do with people. I would have probably ended up working in the realm of psychology — because we are biological beings, but we also are spiritual beings, we are mental beings. So it would have been a science that helps people sort of understand their inner worlds and help to grow an understanding of what makes us tick as human beings and as societies.

Oh, Gladys, thank you so much. I, for one, have enjoyed working with you and seeing how you work: you’ve made a complex role look easy, and done so with a gentle thoughtfulness that is truly unique to just you. So thank you for having shared your energies and talents with Segal Family Foundation. I think I speak for all of us when I say we are truly eager to see what you do next. To our audience, we hope you have enjoyed our foray into the podcast world! Please continue to engage with us as we experiment with different ways to share our work, read our articles, follow us on social media — you know the drill. Thank you, everyone and have a great day.



Segal Family Foundation

Social impact funder and advisor building a network of visionary local leaders and global donors to advance positive change in Africa