Donors go to Ghana

Andrew Milner

In November 2006, the Institute for Philanthropy took a group of 19 donors from the US, the UK, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany to Ghana for the second of three modules of The Philanthropy Workshop (TPW). The aim of this ‘developing world module’ is to show people what is happening and to encourage them to think about funding in developing countries. The starting point, according to Salvatore LaSpada of the Institute for Philanthropy, is that communities have their own solutions: what they need is money.

At the end of the trip, all 19 donors came together to compare notes on what they’d experienced.

The site visits

In Ghana, the donors made a number of site visits. These included:

  • a community school in the village of Senya;
  • the Obuasi minefields (mining, as the main source of foreign direct investment, is crucial to Ghana’s development; yet it hinders it because of the industry’s abuses of human rights and the environment);
  • West African Women’s Business Network (women entrepreneurs face particular obstacles, eg under-investment in their education and lack of collateral for business lending);
  • the Dangme West Health Research Centre near Accra, which is doing work on malaria, a leading cause of mortality among children under five in Ghana.

Funding priorities

When asked ‘What do you look for in a project when you think about funding it, what matters most?’ the group gave a wide range of answers.

‘A good trust and rapport with the leadership of the organization,’ said Tracey. ‘Groups that are led by members of the constituency that they serve,’ said Jackie, a view shared by Miriam: ‘It is very important to me that it’s an indigenous initiative from the people of the group I’m going to fund, and it’s not something I feel I’m imposing on them.’ It is also important for Miriam that the theory of change of the organization matches her own. ‘I really want to know that the grantees are on strategy for my trust,’ agreed Hugh.

‘One thing I think about is how sexy this organization is to other funders,’ said Helen. ‘If it’s not something that would be easy to attract funding for, it makes it more appealing in my eyes. Capacity building, for example, doesn’t tend to be as sexy for the majority of donors.’ Accountability was also mentioned – something we will come back to later.

What most impressed them?

Asked what had most impressed them about the projects they had visited in Ghana, David spoke, to general approval, of ‘an almost overwhelming sense of potential, energy, capability, social networks. It’s very clear to me,’ he said, ‘that our work here is probably best focused on removing barriers to the innate capabilities and energy of the people we’re seeing, as opposed to somehow providing to a needy populace. This is a population and a society that has plenty of capability, they just need some barriers removed.’

Overall, the donors felt that the groups had made their case well. ‘You just had to be wowed by what good advocates they were for their situation,’ said Tracey, who also commented on ‘the level of organization and the marketing skills of the mining village that we met.’

Lindsay was ‘very impressed with how well prepared everyone was’, while Hugh was ‘impressed by the presentation skills of most of the people we met’. He was most taken by the women entrepreneurs group, whom he described as ‘highly articulate’, particularly ‘by their determination and their skills, and their general ability’. Meeting them was ‘an inspirational experience’.

Mimi too was struck by the power of the women: ‘I am not a flag-carrying feminist, but I have always been a very independent woman, and I see women here who are thinking so far beyond where they already are that I am really quite amazed by it.’

Miriam was enthused by ‘the many examples of community-organized self-aid. We heard about planning systems that enable people without access to banks to get some money together to invest, and village associations that take care of their communities.’ She also liked ‘seeing so many people trying to formulate their rights, or just to go forward in really tough conditions. They are kind of natural leaders or just people standing up for what they want to, who are funded and so get further with their aims.’

The caveats

‘What are the red flags for a funder thinking about funding in Ghana?’ asked Sal LaSpada. Miriam’s main concern was about the possibility of concepts being imposed. ‘I fear that there are mother organizations in other countries that feel they have the answers and know what should be done, and a lot of NGOs follow their lead because they are funded by them.’

Fears were also expressed about creating a culture of dependency. Lennart was worried ‘that philanthropic institutions are training African people to be beggars, and basically robbing them of their self-reliance’, a comment endorsed by Hugh. ‘In the last three years I’ve visited projects in Thailand, Tanzania, Uganda and now Ghana,’ he said, ‘and I’m really concerned at the way that the West has made grants and created a dependency culture.’ Yet he was ‘highly encouraged by what we’ve seen in the last few days and the local efforts to develop initiatives, particularly by the women entrepreneurs. But I did feel that in Thailand the whole culture was much more self-reliant and entrepreneurial than I saw in Africa.’

David worried about how to fund in African countries without imposing alien and ultimately inappropriate ideas and attitudes. He was concerned with the view they had heard in one of the presentations that ‘bringing high-powered international finance and creating some big stars and big financial markets here in Ghana was going to somehow give them what they wanted’. He said: ‘I don’t know how to help these people without influencing them in a way that might not serve them in the long run.’

If you are funding abroad, there is always the difficulty of how to read the local situation. As Irene remarked: ‘If you fund in Ghana, it’s very important that you consider all the cultural, social and political aspects that seem to intermingle here. For a foreign eye it’s difficult to look through these layers of relationships.’

Difficulties in the external environment

Although many donors commented favourably on the external environment – for example on the unexpectedly good condition of roads and the fact that the mobile telephone system works everywhere – the external environment also gave rise to anxieties. Joe noted that corruption was brought up in almost all the presentations they heard. ‘My concern is the viability of any project to overcome wrongs done to them that can’t be remedied.’

Karin too felt that grants would achieve little ‘if nothing changes in this country’. ‘It’s a blessed country,’ she said, ‘it’s a good geographical area, they can grow a lot of crops, they have a lot of resources, they could make it on their own, but there is something inside the country, and I feel quite powerless to get involved in that.’

Lindsay also noted that ‘Africa, as it improves its education and health, is desperately going to need jobs. What we’ve seen in Ghana is very educated people, many ex-pats who’ve returned, but unless they come up with industries that can support all these graduates, they’re going to continue to have disenfranchised people.’

Mimi, mindful of the prevalence of corruption, poor leadership and inadequate infrastructure in Africa, said that if she was going to continue funding in Africa, ‘which I desperately want to do, I want to find a way that will be more effective and will start making a difference.’

How to engage with overseas projects?

Despite these caveats, all 19 donors do fund overseas projects. How do they engage with them, given the difficulty of having any sort of hands-on involvement at such a remove?

‘I have to think of the people I’m investing in as my proxy in that environment,’ said Tracey, ‘and I have to have a strong sense that this person is a leader who aligns with my values, and who I think is trustworthy.’ Sometimes you get it wrong, ‘so one of the things I try to keep in mind is that these are all investments … It helps if you think of your grantmaking as an investment portfolio, where you make the investments you think are going to do most good and you know that some things are going to fail … but you’ve got to spread it around a little and be willing to take some risks.’

Others agreed on the importance of leadership, Charlotte adding that she likes ‘layers of leadership’ that she can trust. ‘On the local level I look for how there might be training of local leaders within the community that the grant has been made to, and I go up the layers and it adds credibility if I find trust on two or three layers.’

She also found it ‘very appealing’ to have personal involvement in some projects – though ‘I don’t need this in every project’. In Guatemala, for example, where she was involved with ‘a very transformative process of a Mayan Indian village, we were actually invited down to join in the celebration when the village signed the contract on buying their land, and it was just such a powerful experience that it adds a lot of value.’

Jackie admitted that she didn’t generally make grants to the developing world partly because ‘I really like to have a relationship that’s close and comfortable, I like to be able to read newspapers about what’s going on in the areas where I’m funding, and really get an intimate knowledge.’ She once belonged to a group that did some funding in Pakistan and Iran, and they hired a consultant to make quarterly visits to each of the grantees, and to do capacity building if she judged they needed it. ‘She would periodically come back to the States and have face-to-face meetings with the group that was doing the granting, and that seemed to be a good strategy for involving us.’

What about accountability?

When making a grant, said Joe, ‘I actually look for systems of accountability so that I know where the money goes. Then I can figure out if it’s being used in the way that I thought it would be, and that it’s being benchmarked appropriately.’

Lindsay emphasized that people should also be ‘focused on outcomes and evaluations along the way’. This is not just a matter of filling in forms, but of ‘understanding at what point along the way you need to readjust, to re-evaluate what the outcome will be, why we are in this’.

Hugh spoke of the importance of having ‘very clear objectives and numbers’. He is funding a project in Sri Lanka for refurbishing schools, and feels that ‘the world has been transformed by email’: ‘We get a quarterly report by email with pictures of the progress in building the schools. If I’ve got a query, I can email the gentleman in Sri Lanka in the evening and I’ll have a reply waiting for me in the morning.’ But he cautions that: ‘It’s very easy for a donor to waste the time of people in the field. Unless we’ve got a very pressing question indeed, we don’t ask it because we trust them.’

However, personal contact from funders can be very welcome to groups, since it shows their interest beyond the signing of a cheque. ‘We’ve done a number of visits to remote sites and the end beneficiaries of these projects have been very, very happy to see us there,’ said Lennart. ‘They say they’ve never seen a funder in person before.’

The importance of the trusted intermediary

Intermediary organizations are vital in connecting grantees and overseas donors. Helen works with a fund that is also a regranting organization, and she feels that the dual perspective gives her a special position: ‘I’m able to be in contact with advisers and grantees as much as I want, and I love helping other donors connect with advisers and grantees, so for me that’s really worked in terms of feeling engaged and connected.’

David, whose foundation actually funds that regranting organization, expanded on this theme. He felt that if the money comes to a project from a trusted intermediary – from a hand, as he put it, ‘that has shaken the hand of the grantee many times before’ – it doesn’t come laden with all the assumptions and biases and values that participants alluded to earlier. ‘I have more faith that the money will do what it’s intended to do, and that the social networks that are being used to distribute this money will enforce good behaviour in a way that my site visits or my requests for reports would never elicit.’

What emerges clearly from all these contributions is that trust is critical, no matter which systems are used for monitoring the project.

Advice for NGOs?

What did the participants prize in overseas projects and what advice could they offer to developing country organizations seeking overseas funding? Communication emerged as the key message. ‘Tell them what’s working, tell them what’s not working, tell them what you’re doing about it, tell them if you have problems and you need help,’ said Mimi, ‘but keep in touch with them, even if it’s just an occasional email, so that the donor feels like they are really involved.’

Lennart agreed; his organization had one grantee that had admitted to problems with a project and offered to refund the money. ‘We have great trust in them as a result of course,’ he said – and they hadn’t asked for any money to be refunded.

Finally, Lindsay emphasized the need for indigenous products. ‘Take what you need from the Western models,’ she said, ‘but we’ve been very impressed with the African models.’

So what was the practical upshot of the visit? Of the 19 participants, ten said they funded in Africa, but prior to the visit none did so in Ghana. All 19 said they would consider doing so in future despite the difficulties that had become apparent and the misgivings they entertained.

Alliance would like to thank Salvatore LaSpada and Coco Ferguson of TPW and all the TPW donors who took part in this discussion.

For more information
To find out more about TPW, contact Salvatore LaSpada at or visit

Andrew Milner is Alliance Associate Editor. Email

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