The recent issue of Alliance looking at philanthropy and power raised some very interesting points about the relationship between charities and their funders. In his editorial on ‘The power of money’, Stephen Pittam mentioned that there ‘has been a tendency for philanthropy to think it knows best’ – an attitude that could lead donors to, with the best of intentions, dictate to grantees about more than simply the use of funds. This was brought home to me recently during a discussion with the director of a local NGO implementing community development programmes in south-east Asia.
The organization was in the process of finalising a proposal for a donor who was instigating a completely new approach to their activities, shifting the focus from community organizing and rights-based approaches to people-led development. Sounds simple on the surface, but despite a lengthy pilot and considerable support through a consultant from the donor, the shift in mindset to this new way of working was proving difficult for staff. Rather than adhering to strict workplans and complex logframes detailing agreed activities, the local staff were to spend more time listening to communities’ needs and supporting them to develop their own solutions.
In principle, this new way of working sounded entirely appropriate for the NGO’s aims and would allow them much greater flexibility to meet the needs of beneficiaries. There had been a genuine effort from the donor to support the organization as they piloted this new way of working. When developing the proposal for the next phase of the project, the organization’s director said that a consultant had been providing input to ensure the information included met the donor’s expectations. But here was where the problems emerged. What the donor was looking for in terms of internal processes did not necessarily fit with the organization’s usual activities or the director’s views.
For example, it was suggested that the roles and responsibilities of the Community Development Facilitators (CDFs), key project staff who would do most of the work on the ground, were too numerous to allow them to function effectively: a fair point in the context of making sure a project is going to be viable and worth funding. However, the director almost took this as a personal affront. In his view, staff job descriptions were an internal affair that the donor did not have the right to amend at will – also a valid argument. Why should he reduce the responsibilities of a few staff members, when other CDFs funded by different donors would continue with their work as usual?
The director felt he had a responsibility to the organization as a whole to draw the line about how much a donor could interfere with their day-to-day workings. There is a need for boundaries between funders and their grantees, but sometimes it can be difficult to establish exactly where these lie. Should an organization make changes to the way they work simply because they are asked to by the ones who hold the pursestrings?
I found this particular situation to be further complicated by the fact that, while agreeing with the need for boundaries, I felt the donor’s comments truly did have merit. In this case, the changes they were suggesting would almost certainly improve future projects. As with many organizations in this part of the world, local staff did seem to be bound by a certain amount of hierarchy and bureaucracy that could very well lead them to become stuck in their ways and lack flexibility in tackling development issues. The donor’s approach challenged this. While the NGO had experience carrying out activities with the community, it was the donor’s approach that was truly considering the will of community members rather than imposing a set of activities on them as defined by a meticulously prepared plan.
Is this a case where philanthropy really does know best? And even so, does this confer the right to cross that line with grantees? In theory, donors wielding too much power over grantees can be problematic; yet in practice there are often valid reasons for donors to bring about changes which could make their local partners more effective.
Jenny Conrad is a freelance writer and editor working with NGOs and social enterprises in Cambodia.