Some of the world’s biggest NGOs were founded by a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.”
– Dr. Judy Mayotte, Desmond Tutu Foundation
On October 19, 2011, four executive directors, one country director, and five non-profit board members and volunteers, met for nearly two hours to discuss the challenges and opportunities in building a network of small NGO leaders. Discussion covered a range of topics, from the uniqueness of our work to areas where individuals felt that they would like professional development. We concluded the conversation with unanimous agreement to meet again on a quarterly basis with a focus on both open sharing and specific professional development topics. We also hope to schedule another set of gatherings open to larger participation with more specific professional development focus.
Framing the conversation
Special guest Dr. Judy Mayotte, long time human rights activist and board member of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation, launched our conversation with an inspirational reflection on how some of the biggest NGOs got founded—a few dedicated people who “got their dander up and said you can’t push these people back.” She concluded with the two things needed to succeed in cross-cultural social change work: exquisite listening and partnerships. She notes that a common thread that links small NGOs is that one story or place inspires the creation of an organization and its mission. Our role with the partnerships that form is to help implement what they want.
We shared the three principles that guide our international work that were laid out before the meeting:
- Relationship-based. Partnerships are based on a strong relationship with people living and working in the communities of focus. Concepts of equality are forefront in conversations about cross-border collaborations.
- Local decision-making. Areas of focus and programs emerge from the communities being served, as do the leaders who implement these programs.
- Learning community. All members of the community have opportunities to reflect and learn from what works and what does not.
We discussed how it is important to have guiding principles—that a commitment to these is what brought people to the meeting. Participants felt that no further discussion was needed about them.
Some terms used by people used to describe our work:
- Mutual accountability
- Partnership with communities
- No agenda going in
- Not just about the money
- Living by the seat of my (our) pants
- Not about what we want to impose
- We bring awareness here as much as helping there
- Bring different frames of reference
- Our work tends to be founder, board, and partnership driven
We were fortunate to have GambiaHelp country director Essa Camara with us, visiting from The Gambia to support their upcoming fundraising event. He shared examples of the deep role that culture plays in development. Respecting the wisdom of the elders is critical in making important decisions, and outsiders remind people of colonialism. It is critical to have a local person making decisions because only someone from within the culture can know the cultural rules that need to be honored.
Building our capacity
The Executive Directors present expressed their need to have a sounding board, others in similar positions to bounce ideas off of. They need opportunities both for open sharing and professional development.
Specific topics of interest included:
- Handling visitors, in some cases bearing gifts
- Assessment: measuring social change
- Managing social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.: which technologies really matter?
- Dealing with failure: creating a safe space for people to share what can’t go into grant reports
- Working towards obsolescence: supporting partners as they build their capacity and self advocate
- Sharing great books/articles: building a public bibliography
- Charity navigators: how important are they?
Small NGOs make a significant impact around the world. By supporting them, we not only strengthen their ability to help their partners address poverty where they work, we also deepen our communities’ understanding of poverty and effective ways to partner with people as they address their most pressing needs.