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)

Are we making it all up?

Note: I had to restore my site from an old backup to solve a link injection problem. I had to republish this post, and lost all the great comments. I’m sorry!

A subscriber to the International Development Careers List asked me a question that really wasn’t about jobs the other day. I figured I’d answer it here, on the blog, instead of on the list. He asked me

“Reading on to all the writing around how we “don’t know” how to solve / what works for global poverty/issues and that to some degree a lot of the agencies are just trying out methods?”

If I parse the question correctly, he wants to know – are development organizations just making all this up? If we don’t know what works, then why are we doing it?

This is where I stop to point out that I am not a development economist. I am not an economist at all. I took four college-level classes in econ as an undergrad, and I’ve spent the last decade and a bit working for development projects. So all I have is a gut feeling and a resume.  That being said, I do think about this stuff. As does almost everyone I know who works in this field.

I don’t think that anyone is making their programs up. I think that sometimes we delude ourselves about the quality of our evidence. We are so sure we have the right approach that we start mistaking all our intermediate results for actual impact. So a lot of programs end up based on doubtful evidence. Especially big, broad-based programs intended to reduce poverty or achieve some other massive societal goal.

Even if you’re committed to making all decisions based on evidence, it’s hard to measure if that kind of program works. We can end up using proxy measurements that may or may not be accurate.

Next, I think we have evidence for a lot of smaller, targeted programs. We know how to improve child survival. We know how to improve school attendance. We know how to improve the agricultural productivity of small farms. We know quite clearly what it takes to do specific things that we hope will then reduce poverty. We just don’t know that these kinds of specific things actually do reduce poverty.

In the end, I am not sure it matters. While we shouldn’t fund poverty reduction programs if they don’t actually reduce poverty, that argument doesn’t hold true for, say, bringing down the maternal mortality rate. Fewer dead mothers is an inherent good. I don’t really care if it also helps with poverty reduction.


(photo credit: fdecomite)

Finding a Job in International Development

Shop in Hanoi

I talked about this last month, but now that we’re really up and rolling, it’s time for my proper sales pitch. If you are looking for a job in international development, I can help. I’d been advising people on careers in this field for years. Now I am taking that to the next level.

I started the International Development Careers List. For $2 a month, I’ll give your personalized advice in response to your questions. So you get access to my answers to you, and everyone else’s questions and answers. Recent topics have included “Where do I work to get the best salary?”, “Can I start an international development career at age 40?”, and “Is it really all about who you know?”

In addition to the Q&A, I also post new job vacancies, often before they’re out on the general websites. And I tap my network of international development colleagues and friends to offer advice on any topic I can’t cover on my own. I’ve hired a lot of people for a lot of international development jobs, and I’ve applied for and gotten a lot of international development jobs, so I know what it’s like on both sides of that fence. I can help you get what you’re looking for.

And – added bonus – I maintain a dynamic ebook with every single newsletter in it, updated as I publish. I send it to every new subscriber, so you get access to everything we have talked about to date as well as all the new content as it publishes.

The details

The newsletter is an informal email that comes via Your name and address won’t be visible to anyone but me. I guarantee to publish at least once a week, but in practice I tend to send out 2-4 newsletters a week. So far, I have been able to answer every question I have received within a week, but that could slow down as the number of subscribers increases. I take the identifying information out of all questions, so you stay anonymous even after I publish your Q&A.

The subscription cost is $2/month, and I won’t be offended if you sign up to get your own question answered and then drop off the list. You pay via Amazon payments, but if you want to use PayPal instead, email me ( and we’ll work something out.

Some Happy Quotes from Early Adopters

“The best $2 you can spend on your international development career!” – Wayan Vota

“I’m loving your newsletter thus far. I’ve been reading your blog (and a whole lot of others on your blogroll) for awhile but haven’t wanted to bug you with my own questions just yet. Your writing is fantastic and I love the insight you bring to working in this field.”

“Thanks so much! This is very helpful.”

“I’ve already read through the collection of past newsletters. GREAT STUFF.”

“As someone who is beginning a career in development/aid, Alanna’s newsletter has provided for me a resource that answers the many questions I have.  From practical advice on how to blog, how to choose a grad school, and a listing of job opportunities, the newsletter is an absolute for anyone who is new to aid/development.” – Tom Murphy


photo credit: shapeshift

Chosen because it’s of a shop in Vietnam, where I have always wanted to work.


easy button

I get a lot of questions on how to succeed in international development. How to make an internship turn into a job, how to use a bad job to get a good job. I give the same answer, every single time. Be easy. More than anything else – more than being skilled, more than being high performing, more even than brilliant – be easy.

This is a small world. You see the same people over and over again over the course of years. Hierarchies turn sideways and upside down in the space of months – every time a new grant gets awarded. My friend Simon has been my boss, my HQ backstop, my subordinate, and my colleague working at another NGO.  If you screw up your relationships with colleagues, you don’t get to leave your job and never think of them again. They’ll pop up in the future – maybe working for the donor that funds you, maybe managing you.

You will work with a limited pool of people. If it’s a good project, you have a big national staff and a small expat staff. Even the largest project is smaller than your average corporation. You need to be able to manage the complexity of the national-expatriate balance. If you can’t manage that, you can’t do your job – no matter what else you have going for you.

That means that when people are hiring, the thought at the front of their minds is, “Will this person be easy to work with?” Because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you’re hard to work with. I remember recommending a colleague for promotion and getting the rapid, muttered response: “We can’t move him up. He doesn’t play well with others.”

I have burned my share of bridges. You can’t be easy all the time. I have ex-colleagues that hate me, I am sure. At least one of them comments on this blog to express his disdain for me. But I do my best to be easy.

Four ways to be easy:

  1. When given a task to do, don’t complain to your boss about it. Just smiled and go do it, even if it’s awful.
  2. You can complain to your colleagues a little, but not all the time. You’re aiming for “this sucks but I can handle it” not “this sucks and I’m miserable.”
  3. This part is kind of awful: you can complain to your expat friends a little, but not all the time. Because very often your friends are the ones who tell you about job openings and float your resume around. They’re not going to do that if they think you’re whiny or bad at your job. (Though, honestly, it occurs to me that if you want to complain all the time you probably need a new job better suited to your skills.)
  4. It’s inevitable that your personal and work life will get mixed up, because living overseas does that. Keep them as separate as you can anyway.


Photo credit:  Jason Gulledge

Chosen because I was trying to be a little edgy with the word “Easy,” not over the top.

Finding Funding


One question I get asked very often by readers of this blog is how I got funding for my first overseas internship. It was an unpaid position with a multilateral organization in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and it pretty much launched my global health career. It led to the job that led to my next job and so on and so forth until here I am now with enough experience that I believe myself capable of blogging about it.

My answer generally depresses people: I didn’t get funding. I estimated how much it would cost me every month to live in Tashkent. I figured out how long I wanted to stay – six months. Then I got a job, saved up my money, deferred my student loans, and got on the plane to Tashkent.

There is funding for overseas internships, but most of it seems to be for graduate students. I actually ended staying at my internship for a full year, funding the extra six months with a US government fellowship that no longer seems to exist.

But I got to Tashkent on my own, and I don’t think I could have gotten that fellowship if I wasn’t already there.

I was lucky, I know. I had student loans that could be deferred, and I was able to find work that let me save money. But I don’t have a trust fund and my parents haven’t helped me financially since I was 18. (Yes, Mom, I know you would have. But it didn’t feel right.) (What, no one else’s mom reads their blog?)

I can happily recommend the place I worked to earn the money to go to Tashkent. I was a faculty member at NYLF, the national youth leadership forum. They teach specialized week-long programs to high school students on topics like medicine and international affairs. I had a ball teaching high school kids, and learned a surprising amount from the site visits. Plus, you stay in the program hotel with the kids so I had no living expenses to contend with. NYLF is pretty much always hiring faculty instructors, since that much time with teenagers will burn you out fast.


photo credit: penguincakes

Reader Question – Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?

Dear Alanna,

I too am starting up a very small nonprofit, and I admit that I am not comfortable with all of the issues you raised in your blog on November 8th.

Can you share some of your experiences in which inexperienced nonprofits did more harm than good?


Dear DR,

Here are four ways that a small (or large) NGO can unintentionally do harm to the community it’s trying to serve.

1) You can waste the time and effort of a community by initiating projects which have little chance of success. It’s hard to identify a good project for a small community. Community buy-in is no guarantee of success; possessing deep local knowledge doesn’t make a person omniscient. Projects that have little chance of success include vocational training in sewing and handicrafts, beekeeping, and raising chickens. If you waste a year of the community’s time on a broiler chicken project that never makes a profit, that’s a year of time and effort which could have gone to real income generation or looking after children.

2) You can leave communities convinced that they need outsiders to solve their problems. If you raise $3000 for a backhoe to clear irrigation ditches, then what happens next time the ditches silt up? The farmers’ cooperative will never realize they could have cleared it with hand shovels, or raised the money by charging a membership fee.

3) You can damage beneficial community structures, or solidify harmful structures. Your choice of community intermediary elevates that person or group, by putting them in control (real or perceived control) of valuable assets. If you work with existing power structures, you can support and entrench inequalities, such as sexism or racism, which are already present. If you chose partners who are not part of the current elite, you can destabilize delicate community balances, and erode resilience.

4) You can construct a building and then not provide funds for maintenance or staffing. A school needs a teacher. A clinic needs a doctor or nurse. All buildings need upkeep – painting and repairs at the very least. A building with not funds for maintenance is a drain on community resources in perpetuity, or an eyesore.

I recommend reading Michael Maren’s book The Road to Hell; it has its flaws but it is very sincere and brings up a lot to think about.



Readers – if anyone has case studies or examples, please comment.

Edited to add – 1) Check out the fascinating examples in the comments and 2) Owen has two more ways an incompetent NGO can hurt the population it is trying to help.

(Photo Credit: Copyright Glenna Gordon)
She gave it to me as an example of aid with unintended consequences.

Reader question: When is it okay to start an NGO?

Hi Alanna,

I have been reading your blog for some time. I was particularly struck by your entry on founding NGOs. While in the context you are speaking I completely agree with you, I am curious about your opinion on something:

I am part of a (very) small NGO whose mandate is to help a small village in rural Bolivia. We have one partner in the village and several of us volunteering in the evenings/weekends to raise money in order to fund income generating projects in the village. Our ultimate goal is to develop these projects until they are capable of sustaining themselves as well as a small school that has been built in the village, at which point we would like to walk away. I am curious whether this type of operation even falls under the term NGO as you are using it, and what the feeling of the development world is with regards to these small operations? Does your opinion stand that we would be better off contributing our resources to a larger organization (even though our overhead is approximately zero)?



Dear PB,

I can’t really answer your question without knowing more about your organization. I think, though, there are questions you can think about to decide for yourself:

• Do you have a clear idea of how you’ll measure success, or are you just assuming something good will result from your project?

• Do you have an identified funding source that does not involve applying for grants?

• Are you deeply familiar with the village you work in, and the theory and practice of the work you are doing? And I would not call one or two visits deeply familiar with a place.

• Is there no existing NGO who could do the same work in the same place? If you can commit to ongoing funding, even huge organizations can be willing to run little projects. You can actually go to Save the Children or Mercy Corps and say “I have $20,000 a year, can you support this specific school/clinic/agriculture center for that amount?” They may not be able to, but they will listen, especially if you want to work somewhere that doesn’t get much attention or funding.

• Are you starting a new organization because of ego? Do you think it will be cool/exciting/glamorous/make your mother proud to be head of an NGO? Do you actually know enough to do this well or are you just convinced in your heart you’ll do a better job because you are special?

If you feel comfortable with the answers to these questions, you can be pretty sure that your organization is value-added and not just noise.

You’ll notice that there is nothing in there about overhead. People have a problem with overhead costs because they feel that it makes money donated have less impact. But inexperience and mistakes also erode a program’s effectiveness. A skilled organization that spends 15% of the money it raises on accounting, budget transparency, and experienced headquarters oversight may well have just as much impact for every donor dollar as a no-overhead group who ends up doing training that has no impact on actual behavior, or buying supplies that are wrong for the situation.


(photo credit: Alexander Drachmann)
Chosen because I loved the muted colors and the weathered look of the ground and the cement.