The Challenge of Being a Donor


I recently got an email from a reader frustrasted by how little he has learned after 30 years of being a donor to international developement causes. With his permission, I am posting our email exchange here:

The letter

I have been giving to aid organizations such as Oxfam America and Trickle Up for over 30 years. Yet my thinking has not benefited from 30 years of direct feedback. I have no independent means of hearing from the people served by these organizations.

Recently, it occurred to me that I should focus on a single region in a particular country where there is a program in place. I would see if I could develop direct relationships with people in that region. Then I would be exposed to different perspectives.

Is it plausible to think that using modern forms of communication, I might be able to form lasting long-term relationships that would give me a useful, local perspective on various aid efforts?

I am also wondering if a problem such as malaria might offer a way to partner with others who are working in the target region.

Are these sorts of relationships for two-way learning and long-term problem solving possible? Can individuals learn from each other and not have the learning mediated by the media or aid organizations?

My Answer

You’re up against one of the most frustrating situation for a committed donor: it feels like throwing your money down a well sometimes. You can’t tell if things are changing because they change so slowly, and when they do change you can’t tell how much of it was because of you. I think that feeling is a big part of what drives the current trend toward randomized controlled trials on international development interventions.

In terms of connecting with people who actually interact with aid programs, I think the answer is a qualified yes. Most of the developing world is rapidly coming online and using social media in particular. People are using the internet even when they don’t have water or consistent electricity.

However, the question that comes to mind for me is: what’s in it for them? What is the motivation for a 22-year-old Malawian to communicate with you about aid programs and their impact on her life? You would benefit from getting a local perspective on where your money goes, but how does your dialogue partner benefit? Their time is valuable and internet access is not free – why should they spend that on you?

If you can find a way past that hurdle, then I think yes, interpersonal learning is completely possible.

One final thought for you – are you familiar with the work of I don’t agree with all their conclusions, but they do an excellent job of identifying organizations that perform, and share, genuine impact evaluations. You might consider shifting your giving to such an organization.

(photo credit: jaymiek)

Why don’t we do better?

Sam Brownback

I have mentioned two or three or thirty times that I am not the only person in the development world who obsesses about how we could do our work better. Everyone has ideas; it’s a very common topic of conversation among people who work in this field. Most of us have the same ideas. So why don’t we ever get to act on them? There are a few reasons I can think of:

Donors don’t always know what they are doing. Government donors are usually democratic nations, which means in practice that foreign aid programs are often defined by legislatures with no real background in international development. So you end up with earmarks for pet ideas, rules forbidding useful practices like harm reduction, and an overall lack of direction. Private donors tend to go for exciting quick impact ideas like mobile health clinics and cash-for-work projects. Overall, complicated, unsexy ideas like health system strengthening may go unsupported.

Donors are politically motivated. I have seen health projects where the donor chose the pilot areas because of mysterious HQ calculus about the possibility of terrorism or political instability. Or take a look at how funding goes to Gaza and the West Bank. Donors have reasons for supporting international development funding that go way beyond supporting international development, and it can be hard to take that money and make it useful. Many (maybe most) organizations tend to try anyway.

Lack of time. There is a steady supply of new research on what works in international development. There is no steady supply of time in which to read that research and figure out how to apply it in practice. Some places have a technical team at headquarters to keep up with new research and recommend how to use it. That’s not as common you would think, though, because that kind of work counts as an overhead expense. High overheads make it hard to get grants and donations.

Host country capacities. A good development program works with the host country government to build its skill set, so that impact will continue once the program is over. Sometimes that means obeying host country regulations that contradict best practices, or spending a year convincing a government to change its rules. For example, some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were achingly slow to adopt community therapeutic feeding (plumpy’nut and other RUTFs) even when the data showed it was much more effective than older ways of treating malnutrition. It’s miserable being stuck in a project that could be doing far more than it is allowed to, but I think the alternative – setting up an aid system that is parallel to the government – or worse yet, contradictory – is worse in the long term.

Funding and evaluation cycles. It’s very hard to design a program that will have a long term impact and also start showing results in two years. It’s not impossible; I’ve worked for several projects that managed it. But it’s hard. It limits your options severely. And inexperienced or unskilled NGOs may just aim for quick results and worry about the long term later.

This is not an exhaustive list. It’s just off the top of my head. What am I missing?


Photo Credit: Iowa

Chosen because Senator Brownback once tied up hundred of hours of manpower from an HIV/AIDS program because he didn’t understand the difference between harm reduction and risk reduction.

Why donor coordination is so difficult

Donors don’t fail to coordinate out of stupidity or greed. Donors fail to coordinate because coordination is really hard.

First of all, donors give for a lot of reasons. Certainly they want to support international development, but they have secondary needs. Domestic constituencies need to support foreign aid, or the money to support it vanishes. A nation may have strategic goals in a particular country or region, and it may have laws governing what kind of aid it can provide. All of these factors mean that nations end up making their foreign assistance plans alone.

When the time comes for donors to coordinate, they can’t just make their plans together. Instead, they’re forced to take existing plans and somehow make their plans fit together. There is very little room to modify or change what’s been developed. More often than not, donors do one of two things. They claim regions of a country, one per donor, or they just make a big list of who’s doing what and where, and call that list coordination.

Everyone involved is making a good faith effort to do foreign aid better, but the institutional roadblocks are hard to overcome.

A lot of people have asked me to write about Accra. I’m not going to – that kind of high-level stuff is not my specialty, and there is an awful lot of good writing out there already. (CGD, whom you know I adore, has a good summary here.)

(photo credit Don Nunn)

Field and headquarters relationships

Your field offices always think that everyone in DC is out-of-touch, bureaucratic, and totally unaware of how things really work. Obsessively fixated on unimportant details, lazy, and overpaid. Evil parasitic weasels. Your HQ office always thinks that the field offices are reckless, single-minded, and don’t understand the context of the work or the political realities of getting funding. Cowboys.

That’s just how it is. But don’t worry. Field and HQ instantly unite when faced with the dreaded donor.

Photo credit: foundphotos

Jargon of the day: Burn Rate

Jargon: Burn Rate

Meaning: How much a development project spends each month, or each year. You need to keep an eye on your burn rate to make sure that you’re not going to be overspent by the end of your project or not spend all your money and have to give it back to the donor (and do less work than you could have.)

Jargon of the Day: Leverage

Jargon: Leverage

Translation: Officially, it means to use one kind of funding as a way to inspire other donors. So you could leverage a $500 donation by getting a foundation to match it, and have $1000. In practice, though, it just means to use multiple funding streams to fund one project, whether or not the later funds were donated because of the first ones. NGOs claim all the time that they are leveraging your donation when what they really mean is “combining with other kinds of money.”

Things I believe in #13: Giving your team hats and t-shirts

When I sat down to expand on this, I realized what I really meant was – make your staff into a team. Treat them as competent professionals working together for a common goal. Giving them swag is one way to do that; putting everyone in the same t-shirt makes them look physically like equals. It makes them feel commonality with headquarters, and with the other offices in the country and around the world.

Every single paid staff member and volunteer should know where your organization is based, who funds it, and the general outline of its national programs. Paid staff members should know more. They should know the basic details of all your country projects, not just the ones they work for. If you have behavior change messages, every single employee should know them. This includes your drivers, your cleaners, your gardeners, and your tea lady (and if your behavior change messages are too complex for the tea lady, you’ve got problems).

Your people should know what it means to work for you, and they should be proud of it. They should know your general country budget, and your global budget. They should know where the money comes from – DFID, USAID, private donors, or whoever. They should know your organization’s global mission.

Now you’re wondering, why bother with this level of staff integration? Because everybody wins when you make your staff into a team. A high-functioning team generates a synergy of local and expat knowledge that takes your projects to a new level. Your organization benefits by running more effective, more efficient programs. Your host country benefits because the quality of your work is better.

It takes more than a weekly staff meeting to make this kind of team effort happen. Personally, I like posters and diagrams in common areas explaining program components. I like using your whole team as your first focus group for behavior change materials. I like having your country director give periodic updates on budgets and progress toward program goals. I like giving your team free lunches and doing presentations on different program components. I like having people from different teams share drivers and office space.