I give lots of thought to what makes community-based organizations the lowest common denominator in development aid. Readers of how-matters.org may already be familiar with previous arguments I’ve offered for the increased inclusion of and investment in community-based organizations (CBOs). As an ardent proponent of CBOs’ comparative advantages, I believe they have a better chance of being driven by “the community” than other development actors and also can be more nimble, responsive, and sustainable.
So why is so many CBOs’ work disregarded, derided, and even ignored in the development aid sector? Despite all the talk of local ownership and interdependence among aid partners, what is it that continues to disadvantage local groups in the development discourse?
One explanation may be that, despite their unique and all-important capacities, CBOs have an image problem. Take for instance, this video of a community-based organization in Uganda:
(If unable to load video, see: http://www.ridealist.com/Ridealist/Video_%26_Audio/Pages/Hands_of_Action_Uganda.html)
The video is produced by an interesting initiative called Ridealist that is helping local groups in the developing world to produce media to help promote their work. They have done a good job of demonstrating in this video how a local groups’ work, when focused on the people within a locality, is inherently responsive and holistic rather than sector specific. (Please do note the incongruity with traditional aid funding streams.)
What Ridealist does is necessary and commendable, but I can’t help but think about what this video doesn’t tell us, and how it doesn’t help us address CBOs’ image problem.
Let’s say a donor is impressed by Randa Unified Farmers Group’s (or Hands of Action Uganda’s?) video. If their view of CBOs overall is that most have no “capacity” and are difficult to fund, why would she or he bother to help find or create a funding opportunity for them?
One look at the comments on a previous post, “Would YOU fund this organization?”, demonstrates the expectations placed on local partners and the standards that aid workers feel they have to uphold. Whether these are reasonable or not, this is what CBOs are up against as they vie for scarce funding at the community level.
So what if some crack public relationship folks could sweep in and tell CBOs how best to sell themselves to those of us controlling the resources? A blog in May by Dan Pallotta in the Harvard Business Review urges the non-profit sector to market “compassion with same rigor as we market luxury cars.” I wonder what marketing gurus would tell CBOs about improving their image to stimulate demand for their services among donors.
I would offer that pandering to the current expected norms of what will attract funding, e.g. extensive use of jargonese, is not the most important thing. In the case of Hands of Action Uganda, I personally want to know what is it that makes them unique. Even more importantly, what is it that makes them relevant to the people they serve?
Hands of Action – the name itself already suggests that there is a commitment to “getting things done” in the community. Show me the wide swath of community members who are devoted to the outcomes of the organization’s work. Show me the drive, the commitment of the people who drive this organization. What is the CBO’s back story? Why did its founders care so much to start it up? Show me the humanity and the generosity of spirit that gets its leaders out of bed each day and keeps its volunteers going even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. For me, what this organization does is secondary to “who they are.” In my experience, it’s the heart and soul of a CBO, the desire to serve, that is a group’s biggest determinant of success.
And to me this is where CBOs have to get better at “selling” themselves. It’s not the technical expertise that matters. Rather it is demonstrating the value of the expertise of their collective experience (successes and failures, local knowledge of culture and language, hopes and disappointments, all) that could ultimately change people’s negative assumptions and associations with grassroots organizations.
I am certainly not arguing that all CBOs are created equal, and certainly CBOs have differing levels of effectiveness and embeddedness in the community. We’ve probably all worked with stellar CBOs and with struggling ones. But for every argument I’ve heard against those “corrupt” or “ineffective” CBOs, I ask those involved in international aid to look first to ourselves and our organizations’ bureaucratic procedures that contribute to the marginalization of small, informal grassroots groups in our work.
Psychology tells us that when making decisions, people use “objective” information secondarily to build a rationale for what is felt at an instinctual, emotional level. If we ignore this, much will continue to be lost in the abstraction and over-intellectualization of aid work. In my mind, this is what allows us to overlook too many effective CBOs’ vision, courage, resourcefulness, and impact at local levels.
I have worked with some of the most skilled and dedicated, yet unrecognized, leaders in the development sector. These inspiring leaders, who get me out of bed, are at the grassroots. And these are not folks who are necessarily adept at or comfortable with (or have the time or energy frankly) to promote their organization’s image among current and potential development partners and funders.
But CBOs consider this. If you want my financial investment, you have to get my emotional investment first.