In calls for proposals from donors it is not uncommon to see application forms ask questions like; ‘Describe how you are collaborating with other NGOs’; or ‘Tell us what you are doing to ensure you are not duplicating your work’; or ‘Describe how you are including beneficiaries in your work’.
These are valid questions. It’s not entirely unreasonable to expect that one or more organisations have safeguards against doing the same thing, in the same area, with the same communities.
But the same analytical eye is rarely turned inwards. Much is done to eliminate inefficiency and duplication between NGOs, however very little is said about the inefficiency on the funders side.
If our sector’s entire purpose is, in common parlance, to ‘help people’, why do these systems do the exact opposite?
How does this impact NGOs?
Imagine you’re a small NGO: $500,000 turn over, 8 staff, based in a rural region of a country, working with 30 communities, the furthest one takes a few hours to reach by public transport because the NGO you manage only has one car. 90% of your budget comes from institutional donors.
These are your challenges
- There is no ‘seasonal’ grant cycle – funders launch calls whenever it suits them. So you are constantly on the alert, fearing you’ll miss an opportunity. Many of us will have experienced this in the form of FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out.
- There is no single place to be notified about grants that are relevant to you. You sign up to as many newsletters and websites you can find and afford, each of which then build up in your already clogged inbox.
- Some funders use a ‘by invitation only’ approach. So you try to keep your eyes open to work out how to get ‘in’ with them.
- There is no standard proposal / application form – every funder asks the same things in their own way. So you have to re-tailor every application, even if there is large overlap in the information they ask for. Understanding the language and re-writing the response takes time.
- Every donor wants to conduct their own visit – to talk to staff, partners, communities, get a real ‘feel’ for the context. Each visit will have a major impact. A 3 day visit might take a week (in time) to prepare, to organise meetings, for communities to organise events (and refreshments!). Even during the visit, they might not have a car, so you need to drive them around taking the organisation’s only car away from our field staff.
- There is no common reporting form – every donor wants their own report, according to their own reporting cycle, often in their own format.
Ignoring reporting for a minute (which in itself could save millions), over the course of 20 grant applications an NGO may spend approximately 1,500 man hours – to secure just one grant. And because this is never just one person, but spread across much of your key staff, at different times and stages, the collateral impact on everything else (planning, implementing, monitoring, reporting) can increase that time further.
That’s a lot of time that could be spent focussing on your activities and doing them better. That’s 180 days worth of one persons’ work. What could you do with a full-time person for 6 months?
What can be done?
Like everything there is no silver bullet, and technology alone will not resolve the problem.
What can be done requires those with a commitment to change to come together and work out how to do it, placing ego and the desire to control aside. Fully realising that ‘change’ may result in losses (power, relevance, revenue) but accepting that there is far more to gain by doing so in terms of the bigger picture; the accelerated progression towards achieving the targets and/or indeed the spirit of the sustainable development goals.
If we want NGOs to be efficient, and we truly believe in achieving sustainable social change, we need to reflect on how our system can facilitate that.
Not by pushing ‘efficiency’ down the line as we do today, but rather by acting together on how we can make “the funder side” more efficient to alleviate the burdens on their grantees.
Chris Man is co-founder of FieldWorks
This article originally appeared on the FieldWork website on 31 July 2018. The original article can be found here.