Do CBOs have an image problem?

I give lots of thought to what makes community-based organizations the lowest common denominator in development aid. Readers of 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:

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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.


Related Posts

The Marginalization of CBOs by Development Actors: A Perspective from Zimbabwe

Nothing to Offer

Small is Beautiful…Grants, That Is (Part 2)

Waiting for Pennies from Heaven

How to build strong relationships with grassroots organizations – Part 3


  1. Interesting, incisive and thought provoking post, thank you. After just one quick read through I am left with just one conclusion – we need to talk!

    Are you on skype? My skype is chris_gelken
    and twitter @chrisgelken

    Please do get in touch!


  2. Enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for sharing.
    Just commented on LinkedIN, though in short…

    Yes, grass root organisations need to work on their brand identity and image, just like any other (non) profit organisation. A professional look will enable them to attract donors and supporters. Starting with knowing who they are and what they stand for – their story is their brand.

    A genuine, convincing and authoritative message to the world will attract a broader audience and increase their impact!

  3. Jennifer, thank you so much for this post. This one is a keeper.

    I always ask “why are you doing this work” when I am on site visits because motivation answers so many other questions I might have.

    As usual, your points are spot on and make me want to pound my fist and say YES!

  4. Daniel Lalande

    Hi Jennifer ,
    I read your post a few days ago and must say got me thinking a lot but in a good way. I work on the terrain either here in Brazil or in India and must say that my contribution to development has always been directly link with some form of emotional involvment.This, I also try to get through to volunteers who participate on these different projects. Then again, as you know CBO’s come in all shapes and forms. They encounter at times their own issues. I strongly believe to this day that small is beautiful. But small with a heart makes CBO’S beautiful and more special.Reaching out for “emotional investment” takes time and I believe to often we want to skip this part which for me is the most important. I also work with inspiring people and for this reason I have decided to create an NGO that gives opportunities to CBO’s: creating links-relationship with the aim of promoting and finding the right partners who will have a strong connection to the people, the community and the projects. Not solely being an open wallet! Like some might think… Thanks for your words!

  5. Hi Jennifer,
    As always a thoughtful post, but I wonder whether the issue is simply one of communication and marketing, as important as they are. My experience was that large donors often cannot fund CBOs because of the complex bureaucracy that only allows funding for certain types of registered, audited, official organisations. This may ensure transparency and accountability to some extent, but it also makes it difficult for ‘true’ CBOs to access funding. Complex legal documents and procedures may not be your priority when resources are scarce and workload is pressing. The paradox then is that such organisations find it difficult to shine through excellent work, because donor’s hands are tied because of an unclear legal status or governance structure. As mush as CBOs need to communicate better, donors need to become more flexible in disbursing money to entities that may not neatly follow HQ’s list of how a local partner is supposed to look like.

  6. farm & market

    If CBOs depend so heavily on marketing themselves, it implies that they are dependent on external funding for their existence, and are therefore illegitimate. As an outside funder I want to favor organizations that would be there with or without me, and to whom a small amount of temporary funding gives a boost in what they are doing anyway. I’d like to see their portfolio of activities in order to see my support in the perspective of everything else they do. If a CBO has a slick marketing department and a history of external support, I’m likely to look elsewhere.

  7. Kathy S

    Yes, thanks for your continuing thoughtful posts on these issues. Maybe you are right that there might be a bit of an “image” problem with CBOs, which might be addressed through better marketing and PR. But mostly I agree with aidnography (whoever that is) that the major problem CBOs have is their inability to meet the high bar almost always set by official aid organizations for financial accountability as well as for technical expertise. That and the need to move large amounts of money, as well as the elitist orientation of most people in the development field, whether among donor organizations or in government sectors in developing countries.
    Still, in a recent consultancy with USAID Uganda on how to promote greater citizen “demand” for government services and for government accountability, I was pleased to hear so many USAID Uganda staff express a strong interest in trying to support CBOs, rather than international NGOs, which they tended to perceive as populated by staff who were motivated more by self-interest that by community interest. At the same time, a donor like USAID lacks mechanisms for channeling funding to CBOs, so I think they found themselves somewhat constrained to move toward this goal.
    In another meeting that I attended recently, I was interested to someone with a major for-profit contracting agency for USAID (MSI) say that they were hosting training sessions for local NGOs and CBOs to meet the requirements for USAID funding. That suggested to me a positive move for an organization that has tended to capture quite a lot of aid money, crowding out CBOs.
    So in general, I think the issue is not so much “image” as it is the culture and financial imperatives of donor agencies.

  8. I think that CBOs may have something more serious: an existential problem. I’ve been involved in a number of large community-development projects (650 villages, then 200 villages, then 400 villages, then 1500 villages) and we always deal with the village government. This might be formal government; it might be traditional leadership; it might be locally elected; in the worst cases (not yet dealt with) they can be just appointed. But as grant-recipients these village governments all have some form of political legitimacy (a CBO is generally a private organisation), some kind of public scrutiny and accountability, and some kind of future sustainability. These local governments then spend the grant. They hire people. They procure materials. They appoint project subcommittees or run elections for same. They publish accounts in public places. They are legal entities. I can’t think of a good reason for using a CBO over a village government. If anyone is going to engage a CBO (in my view), the logical people to do so are the village government, who in turn are the logical grantee for any locally-focussed development funding.

  9. WAYA

    My Dear Readers
    I think the writer is right in a way although few CBOs are founded for self interest. Many CBOs are founded during and post disasters or conflict. It means they are the victims of the circumstances, hence, they find no option than to share their problems and find solutions by themselves and automatically a CBO is formed. There is high sense of ownership that makes it sustainable even with no or litle resources. What is needed is to use less funds in building their capacity to realise greater impact. I have seen and worked in potential CBOs which are now NGOs with good image in the community. They have greater opportunities compared to International Organisations, the difference is access to fund and I agree with the other readers that the pre set condition for funding by donors is a way of denying CBOs the opportunity to have access to funds. CBOs will continue to be incapable in the eyes of donors as long as they work remotely instead of having face-to-face interaction and mentoring with the CBOs that could do the grassroots development activities with required small funds.

  10. Clement N Dlamini

    Jennifer, this is an interesting article and fortunately or unfortunately I am seeing it at a time when my country (Swaziland) is faced with an economic crisis. I will not bore you with the reasons we are in an economic crisis, but I’m sure you can Google search Swaziland and your answer will be right there. I know my submission might not be regarded as academic but from meetings with the Executive Director of The Coordinating Assembly of NGOs (CANGO) who decried the issue of lack of funding and CBO’s not fund able because of lack of capacity (both human resources and skills). Having worked with CBOs and donors I have always assumed that part of a donor’s mandate is to build the capacity of a beneficiary organization to be better off than before they received funding from them. Which includes amongst other things enforcing issues of project/program ownership through meaningful participation in decision making especially decisions on where the resources would give them the best returns.
    I think CBOs are better placed to deliver services effectively and give donors best value for their resources as long as we can be able to strengthen their systems and capacities to deliver and manage these resources. In Swaziland CSO/NGO/CBOs are closing shop because the country is not fundable due to its lower middle income status and GDP, where else we see high levels of poverty, unemployment and HIV/AIDS related illnesses and deaths. This coupled with our history of fiscal indiscipline makes it very hard for donors to want to assist Swaziland.

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