Overseas staffing – Foundation dilemmas

Liesbeth Zwitser

This issue of Alliance looks at how foundations that operate internationally run their operations. Interviews with a broad spectrum of foundations provide interesting insights into the considerations underlying the choices made regarding three interrelated issues: style of operation, organizational structure and staffing. Whether to run your operation centrally or through field offices appears to be a critical choice for foundations. Some have opted for field offices because they feel they need to be close at hand to help build the capacity of their grantees. Others choose to run their operation from a central headquarters because they don’t want to be too close to the field and look constantly over the shoulders of their grantees, as they fear that this might undermine their local capacity.

Grantees’ views were also sought. Although grantees perceive a greater tendency for field office staff to be prescriptive and have their own agenda than for headquarters-based staff – more than foundations themselves seem to be aware of – they consider it on the whole less relevant whether donors run their operations centrally or decentralized. From the grantees’ perspective it is the attitude of the donor, and in particular the quality of the donor-grantee relationship, which makes the difference. Donors should see themselves not just as funders but as partners. Grantees believe that local capacity is more likely to be developed when they are treated and encouraged to behave as partners.

Irrespective of their organizational structure, the challenge for all donors alike is to develop in their staff the capacity to work in partnership with grantees, stimulating a critical dialogue, creating room for reflection in a climate of mutual trust and respect in which both want to learn from one another. Only then will we be able to speak of true partnership.

Liesbeth Zwitser

Senior Adviser, Bernard van Leer Foundation

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