Help, I Need Somebody… Not Just Anybody

 “…We strengthen existing patterns of advantage and disadvantage because our friends, neighbors and children’s classmates are overwhelmingly likely to share our own racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. When we help someone from one of these in-groups, we don’t stop to ask: Whom are we not helping?”

 “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?”
Shankar Vedantam

The project to which I and others dedicate many hours each week toils against poverty halfway across the world in a country with many resources, though very unfairly distributed.  There is no rational reason why people from so far away should be needed to provide funding and training given the money and talent that exists within this country’s borders.  And yet after many years in operation, the project relies on international support to pay its bills.

This notion – that outsiders really shouldn’t be needed to provide this type of support – was pointed out to me by a countryman of the project.  It is simply a matter of knowing and asking the right people, he said.  He knew and asked a couple of the right people to help, and they agreed to do so.  They had all the best qualifications and references, and yet they exerted little or no effort and produced little to nothing.  Drawing on the talents of local people came to an inglorious end within two months of its starting.

Why is it that people living alongside impoverished women and children might feel no calling to invest deeply in solutions, and yet a loyal network of volunteers living halfway across the world give of themselves week after week to help these same people?  Why is it that this countryman feels that I was asking too much of his contacts when he himself gives many hours to the promotion of a different endeavor involving a friend?

Shankar Vedantam’s NPR story “What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?” answers this question in a way that has real resonance to those of us working in countries with citizens who could help but chose not to.  Vedantam cites the work of Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald exploring how a shift in thinking from prejudice to favoritism moves the conversation from insidious acts to omitted acts, from hurting someone to not helping them.

“I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens,” Banaji says.  In societies where the connected lack a significant sense of shared identity with the poor, the people who could provide financial or skilled support don’t, not because they mean to express prejudice but because they focus their support on people with whom they better identify.  They may give superficial help to causes outside their direct circle, but they don’t often “get skin in the game” by tying their name or reputation to the project or carving out time to deliver high quality customer service on par with what they might deliver for someone else.

With so many small social change projects surviving despite the lack of in-country help and because of actions of people living a world away, what triggers this sense of group identity not based – in many cases – on nationality, race, or class?  Why is it that I have watched several times over people within my own community perform the exact same volunteer tasks I asked of this project’s countryman?  Part of the answer lies in the strong culture of volunteerism that exists in the United States.  Another part lies in the safety of helping far away people—you don’t have to face them and their challenges on a daily basis.  Indeed, I have seen people united across borders around a shared sense of hope and possibility, a unifying force that seems absent in the sometimes more pessimistic attitudes of people from within the country.

At the end of the day of the day, however, reducing inequality remains a daunting task when inequality itself divides people in ways that leave the poor with little chance of ever benefiting from the favoritism of the well-connected.  Outsiders can only support social change so far.  Lasting solutions must involve countrymen and women who, like the woman in Vendantam’s story, give equally to causes outside their circle as to those from within.

Well spent?

Many of us dance between thinking and writing about our work and being the practitioner fully focused on doing the work.  With this dance in mind, I took most of last year off from writing while focused on growing Sou Digna/ I Am Worthy and our partnership with an amazing community of women in Salvador, Brazil.  (I wrote about a previous visit with these women in February 2012.)  In addition, a few of us Seattle-based NGOs have grown the Collaboratory Network, building the capacity and connection of small NGOs working across cultures.  The dance continues, but I am excited to share what I can in between sets.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with a group of women working to improve the lives of women around the world.  Our topic was “Financial Accountability Across Cultures,” and what follows are the notes that I shared based on my experiences bridging the reality of small NGOs working in poor communities with funders somewhere else in the world.  Am I missing anything?  Please share…


Small NGOs are structured communities trying to address some problem in their society.  Their long term success depends on providing the services needed while building their internal capacity and external connections to deliver those services into the future.  Donors play a critical role in keeping an eye on the long term in the face of tremendous immediate need.

What should you look for in the finances of a small NGO to know if money is well spent?

First, “well spent” is in the eye of the beholder and culture-bound.  It could be interpreted to mean:

  • A lot is happening
  • Financials aligned with budget
  • Audited financials
  • Low percent going to administration

A financially-healthy organization has diverse markers in place.

  • A lot is happening, both tied to impact measures and not.  Remember that a lot of social change happens at the margins of pre-determined programs.
  • Capacity to track financials (staffing, technology)
  • Evaluation plan and practice in place
  • “Clean” reputation of local leader as determined by local people
  • Regular opportunities for exchange across cultures and borders

How do you give an international organization voice in explaining its work within the exchange of financial reports? 

Power and perceptions of power permeate the donor-donee-local partner relationship.

  • Look for ways to have direct conversations (in person, via skype)
  • Keep an eye on partnerships where one side is always speaking for the other side
  • Encourage local voice as a part of grant arrangement
  • Keep power in mind in cases of negative information
  • Put financial reports in perspectve… what matters is impact, not the exact accounting of funds in budgeted line items

How can donors help good organizations become more financially healthy through targeted investments?

Fund the internal infrastructure needed to sustain financial health.

  • Fund the administrative costs tied to financial oversight
  • Fund evaluation of programs
  • Fund capacity building and staff training
  • Fund staff exchanges in both directions

Take a learning approach.


When you see a word over and over again, its meaning starts to dilute.  It becomes common and everyday, not exceptional or unique.  Such is it with the word innovation, which appears in rosters of grant opportunities with increasing frequency.  One day’s listing from the Funds for NGOs listserve included a call for applications from USAID’s “Innovation Ventures,” ITU Telecom World’s ” Innovation Competition,” and Rockefeller Foundation’s “Innovation Challenge.”  This past week, the grant form of a major local funder asked me to report “the number of innovative activities offered.”  That word again.  Are the remaining activities therefore stagnant?

Four innovation-related grants out of sevenI understand the desire that foundations have to inspire us to think about the problems of the world differently.  In the fight against poverty, too many people remain at the edge of survival, and too many interventions have failed to make enough of a difference.  I know that new technologies have fundamentally changed the well-being of many.  I have sat amazed at some of the inventions I have seen produced by experts at large institutions like PATH and the Gates Foundation.

So I get the attraction to the concept of innovation, but I wonder if the pendulum swing to innovate comes at a disadvantage to projects where innovation is not the solution to their most pressing problems.  The poverty alleviation project I work with doesn’t need  a new invention but rather old fashioned education and training, tried and true capacity building, and plain old respect for their basic rights to live lives of dignity.

But maybe I am missing something here, so I reach for the dictionary.  Innovate, as it turns out, has two definitions.  The first is “to introduce something new,” which is what I imagine most foundations have in mind. Rockefeller Foundation talks about “new ideas and new ways of building solutions,” and USAID calls for “compelling new development solutions.”

The second definition, “to make changes in something established,” is more interesting to think within our projects that defined in terms of social change.  Social change by definition changes something established, namely society.  This definition inspires us to think about an innovative outcome rather than an newly invented means to an end that may or may not change the world.

I hope foundations continue to support the inventions that ease life for some of world’s most disadvantaged.  I also hope that they keep in mind the effect of a slow drip of water on solid rock… the gradual impact that programs like work training, access to higher education, and community installed latrines have on what once seemed like impermeable challenges.   Our innovation might involve subtle changes in leadership, program design, or concepts of community, and yet these subtle shifts may spawn new ways in which societies address their own most pressing concerns.

The innovation may not be the solution.  The solution may be rethinking innovation.

Scaling Up Down Under… A Networked Approach

Every now and then, hidden within the routine emails that define our day-to-day projects, we find a message from someone working many time zones away on exactly the same issues with which we are grappling here.  These emails provide a much-needed sense of solidarity and cross-regional or cultural perspective.  They also allow us to put action to a core principle of small NGOs: that scaling up means reaching out and building networks that allow us to learn.

Indeed, one of the first questions I was asked when I first started working with an NGO was how the organization was going to scale up.  “Scale up” meant open offices in other cities; increase the span of programs operating under a larger umbrella; or franchising programs across communities and cultures.   Sustainability is achieved through going to scale because it reaches more people with increasingly less investment.

Small NGOs, however, implement the concept of going to scale differently.  They scale up by sharing their approach across networks of other community-based organizations, networks that foster collective learning on ways to apply these approaches within specific cultures or communities.

Our nascent Seattle-based “Social Change Collaboratory Network” moved closer to going to scale this past year when Tirrania Suhood, Executive Officer of Bridges in Blacktown (Western Sydney) Australia, wrote to introduce herself.  Bridges is a small community organization addressing drug and alcohol abuse through a holistic approach that engages families and communities in achieving sustainable results.  Suhood’s work articulating Bridges approach and building key networks serves as a model for our network and for small organizations anywhere looking to amplify their impact at a time of limited resources.

Articulating the Bridges Network Approach

In November 2010, Bridges released the Bridges Network Approach (BNA), authored by Suhood, to share with other organizations the approach that they take to connect families, communities, and organizations.  As Suhood wrote in the forward: “While operating in Blacktown in Western Sydney, my interest has been in the interrelatedness between the local and the big picture and in demonstrating particular ways in which the local can influence the big picture, including the global.”

 Tirrania Suhood speaks about the Bridges Network Approach

 The Bridges Network Approach builds community capacity through networks, where scale is based on connectedness and “ripple effect‟ impact.  As Suhood continues:

“The Bridges Network Approach (BNA) is a way to address social issues through connecting people and organisations, focusing on strengths and underlying causes, and maximising the use of resources. It is a social change philosophy and working paradigm to help bring about more supportive environments at community and organisational levels. The BNA is an inclusive approach that supports engagement of marginalised people and groups.”

 BNA recognizes that while services cannot be replicated, our approach to these services can be.

Voice for SONG: Building networks that foster learning

Prior to publishing the Bridges Network Approach, Suhood was already active building networks that expanded her organization’s reach.  She was the founding driver and convenor of Voice for SONG (for Small Organisations Non Government), a network, now convened by the Western Sydney Community Forum that promotes the recognition of the value of small community organizations. Like the Social Change Collaboratory Network, Voice for SONG recognizes that small NGOs are unique and should have a voice in decision making processes which affect the sector.

From Sydney to Seattle

Where networks of small organizations have an advantage over a few large organizations is in their ability to create horizontal learning across sectors that remains close to the people being served.  Three specific lessons Suhood’s work:

1.  We can best make our case by telling stories that demonstrate accomplishment rather than discussing research on the effectiveness of small NGOs.  Suhood argues that research discussing the value of small NGOs has little impact on bringing additional support. Demonstration and promotion of specific examples of our work and the efficiency and effectiveness of small NGOs (especially through collaboration) is what will create change.

2.  We need to work to be included in discussions, conferences, and other gatherings that discuss services and social change.  “Small organizations need to be more equitably included in forums like this,” Suhood told a 2006 social services conference, referring to the fact that she was the only representative from a small organization at the conference. She is delighted to again to be speaking at upcoming forums that are being convened by the 3 Pillars Network in several capital cities in Australia

3.  We are stronger together.  Whenever an individual or group of individuals ventures down a road untrodden within their community, they must create the way.  This is as true for the small organizations founded by visionary activists in poor places around the world as it is for coalitions of U.S.-based development organizations trying to build partnerships based on equality and local control.  Finding ways to connect across neighborhoods or continents brings us new ideas and greater solidarity in this shared journey.

Real society change often happens at the margins of an organization’s formal service delivery where people make connections that make a difference.  Finding ways to scale up the people power of small community organizations through approaches shared across networks will lead to greater social change.

A special thank you to Tirrania Suhood for her partnership in writing this article.

Too many? I don’t think so.

Does the United States have too many non-profit organizations?  On April 3, 2012, the Urban Institute will take up this question in a public event being webcast for those of us outside of the Beltway.  According to the Urban Institute’s “Charity Challenge,” the total number of 501(c)3s jumped 19-percent over the time period of 1999 to 2009.  (The National Center for Charitable Statistics suggest even higher numbers.)  Whichever way you count them, the number of nonprofit organizations is on the rise.

This growth is a part of a disturbing trend, according to Therena Bailey of SISGI group, because it causes the resources dedicated to social change to be diluted by all of the organizations needing support.  She and others suggest remedies to this “problem” in order to maximize impact on a world needing change.

All of this outcry about whether there are too many nonprofits distracts us from a far more interesting question: Why are these new groups forming?  Perhaps we might yield more creative remedies to this challenge if we contemplated some of the  reasons why people who care about an issue might not look to some other organization to solve it but instead put some legal structure to their idea and call it a nonprofit.

Setting aside those individuals who create new organizations for non-altruistic reasons, I see three fundamental reasons why people start new nonprofits:

Values.  I believe that we don’t talk about values nearly enough in the public sector.  Values are the signposts that guide organizations forward, the unit of unity around which a group of individuals gather.  Our values guide our organizational culture, and that culture sets the tone for how we do our work.  We want to work for solutions that reflect our values.

Relationships.  Particularly in projects that cross borders— social change projects taking place in one country and resource raising in another—relationships matter.  The trust the builds between people does not necessarily transfer to another organization with similar interests.  The people who believe in me don’t necessarily transfer to believing in someone I tell them to trust.

Engagement.  We learn by doing, and within international partnerships, we learn by doing together across culture and language.  One of the most exciting trends in recent times is the growing level of engagement that people want to take in the projects that they support.  Increasingly, it is less about writing a check and more about joining a community.

I hope that someone on the panel on Tuesday acknowledges that the growing number of nonprofits might also indicate a higher level of activism among Americans that makes stronger our democracy and engagement with the rest of the world.  What kind of remedies could our nonprofit leaders devise if they recognized that people want to contribute within communities that share their values, build on relationships that inspire them, and roll up their sleeves alongside others?

I have some ideas on how foundations and others concerned about this issue can keep people focused on what they are good at:

1.   Increase funding for organizations with broad enough “umbrella missions” that they can serve as fiscal agents for smaller grassroots projects.  Many of these groups would gladly offload the legal and financial burden in order to focus on impact.  Several new nonprofits that I have worked with would have welcomed the chance to form their own identity without their own IRS filing.

2.  Fund open work spaces that eliminate the infrastructure costs that it takes to run a grassroots organization, thereby removing redundancies in the system.  In larger urban areas in particular, small organizations would welcome the chance to co-locate, share a copier, and exchange theories of social change over a shared office coffee pot.

3.  Create the “Common File”— including a common application, budget form, and financial and impact reporting tools used by most foundations under a certain size.  Too much time is spent recrafting the same materials to satisfy different funders, often by staff members who are paid as a part of overhead.  This may be the first step towards an excellent idea offered by Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners: consolidated funding.

As I see it, we want grassroots communities here and around the world addressing their most pressing needs.  In the case of international partnerships, we want strong partnerships that cross borders, fostering deeper understanding about how the world works.  We want to keep alive the diversity of solutions that come out of communities with different sets of operational values because only a diversity of solutions will solve our world’s complex problems.  The increasing number of nonprofits is a manifestation of exactly what we want to happen.

Of course growth comes with challenges.  These challenges will be solved when we look at the system as a whole— nonprofits, foundations, and our communities at large— and find new ways to connect social change organizations with the resources they need.

Coragem (Courage)

I was in Salvador last month teaching a class on NGO capacity building and grant writing, sharing everything I know about building community and structure around a mission that makes the world a better place.  On Friday, as all of the tools and tricks it takes to run an effective organization settled into the minds of class participants, one leaned forward and said, “Temos que ter coragem.”  We have to have courage.  She meant the kind of courage that would allow them to pioneer new ways of doing things, knowing that they will make mistakes in front of each other along the way.

Indeed, courage was on the minds of these women that day.  A discussion about program evaluation shifted from graduation rates to measuring any gain in self esteem that might come through education and social support.  They described trying to get young women to even consider taking a university entrance exam within a culture of presumed failure.  Each of the women in the room had taken the Vestibular at least twice—several three and four times— before passing, and the young women they work with know that it is uphill battle to learn enough to pass this rigorous exam.  Their dreams of achieving a university education required courage to march through the pain of endless study with no guarantee of success, foregone wages, and, for some, social stigma for even trying.

As it turns out, the inner demons that haunt young African-Brazilian women were in good company.  The night before, a police strike began, resulting in violence and looting in the neighborhoods to which these women were returning to that night.  By the time this conversation was happening, over eighty people had been killed, and the randomness of crime had uprooted any sense of public security for the poor residents of the city.  The fear of what might happen was written on their faces.  They left early to journey home on public buses, some traveling alone as far as the airport.

Courage was on their minds, and now it is on mine.  These women are working in a space in which they have to muster together personal, professional, and social courage, battling internal and external demons around every turn.  They have to lift the spirits of others when the same demons haunt them.  The success they achieve in these circumstances is heroic and humbling.

There I sat, listening to their discussion, aware of the divide between their experiences and my reality.  What was my role in this partnership? Encourage? No, encourage has someone else as its object.  It is passive, distant, and possibly condescending.  I was on a flight out the next morning.  Who was I to tell them to keep up the great work?

What struck me about my week in Salvador was how open these women were to learn and to teach, how they had made a commitment to social change and were in this work for the long term, and how they intuitively understood that their big societal issues were made up of many small problems, all of which could be tackled with the right resources.  They weren’t afraid to have the hard conversations.

Our alternative to encouraging them is to have courage with them.  We can be partners in hard conversations that cross cultural and power boundaries, giving each other the benefit of the doubt along the way.  We can challenge our own limits, professionally and personally, in solidarity with them.  And we can build a long-term community in which to learn, celebrate, and labor together through whatever demons come our way.  To make a difference in this world, they reminded me, temos que ter coragem.

Dear Graduate: Ideas on How to Occupy a Job

January is the month of new beginnings, and for students graduating in May, the start of job hunting season.  This graduating class’s senior year has been marked by Occupy events across the country, leading some soon-to-be-graduates to think about careers addressing what many believe to be our most pressing domestic issue: class inequality.  Indeed, this inequality is faced most by younger Americans, whose median income is a small fraction of that of “typical American households.”

I recently received an email from a 2011 graduate still looking for a job:

Dear Social Change Collaboratory:

My name is Tom, and I am a 2011 graduate of a good school.  I want to work for an organization devoted to working to address economic inequality and other related issues, and I was wondering if you knew any good organizations doing this.  I would appreciate all of the help you could give me because I don’t really know where to begin. 

Thanks you and best regards,

 The Obama generation is charged up to work for change, so where should they work?

Dear Tom,

Thank you for writing, and congratulations on graduating!  Welcome to the thrilling, perplexing world of adulthood.

You ask an excellent question.  People have occupied cities and posted yard signs declaring support for the 99%.   Many of us who haven’t marched have stood by expressing support for the frustration behind the Occupy movement.  Despite all of this fervor, however, the question remains: what are we going to do about this growing divide?

You ask about good organizations focused on this work. In reality, the road to finding a job working to end economic inequality is not necessarily direct—there are many organizations across many sectors doing this work.  Four questions to ask yourself before you decide on one.

1. Are you limited to taking the direct path to addressing income inequality?

In the most direct sense, economic inequality can be solved by reducing top incomes, raising bottom incomes, or closing the gap income, all else remaining equal.  (Hats off to my undergraduate degree in economics.)  Some ideas on careers that take you down this road:

Politics and policy:  Work for an elected official concerned about income inequality, or find an advocacy organization that addresses policy.

Small business:  Work in a small to mid-size business (or non-profit organization) in a low income area.  As Laura Choi notes, finding ways to support local business as they keep their money local helps to reduce income inequality.

Economics: Study economics to better understand the relationship between income and the economy.  This is the type of analysis economists do.

2. Quick fix or long term impact?

Limiting one’s scope to income inequality keeps one’s solutions in the realm of transactional change.  Taxing the rich (at the modest rates proposed), raising the minimum wage a few cents for the poor, or any other simple transfer of money or monetized benefit doesn’t fundamentally change how society works.  (Taxing the rich at high rates or raising the minimum wage significantly would, but that would just be un-American, right?)

Real social change happens once you take the inverse of a societal negative and turn it positive.  Indeed, once you get beyond raising or lowering actual incomes, addressing income inequality gets obscured into a range of job descriptions that rarely mention income or inequality.  These solutions set out to transform some element of society with the assumption that advocating for new laws, building stronger safety nets, or educating marginalized children and families will expand opportunities, thereby raising the lowest incomes.

Social change:  Work for one of the thousands of organizations focused on social justice issues, community development, or political advocacy.

Education:  Get school experience through AmeriCorps or through work at an afterschool care program.

3. Local or global?

Income inequality is not just an American problem.  Impoverished communities around the world face their own versions of income inequality, both domestically and within the context of external aid being imposed on them by large aid or governmental agencies.  We here can do a lot to help people around the world.

Organization support:  Non-profit poverty alleviation and social change organizations have staff members to raise money and expand their communities.  In Washington State, Global Washington has a directory of them.  In other states, contact your local World Affairs Council and ask if they have a directory of internationally-focused organizations working within that region.

Advocacy: A number of organizations work to end poverty by advocating for greater money or awareness about poverty alleviation.  ONE and RESULTS are two such organizations.

Philanthropy:  Philanthropists are foundations are paying closer attention to issues of equality in their giving.  Grantmakers Without Borders is a leader in taking a social change approach to giving.  Its job board includes organizations across the country and worldwide.  The Foundation Center’s job board also lists philanthropy-related opportunities.

 4. Work or volunteer?

Over the years I have been asked by several mid-career professionals how to break into international non-profit work.  After I hear what they are current doing, I get salary envy.  You really want to leave a well paid, challenging job to earn close to nothing, to live on soft funding year after year?  A lot is accomplished through volunteering and board service.  Graduates, ask yourself whether you could achieve your goals by earning a good salary and dedicating your charity dollars and extra hours to community leadership.

Volunteer:  Nearly every social service non-profit, food bank, shelter, after-school program, etc. needs volunteer support.  Contact your local United Way or any of the organizations linked above to find out ways to jump in today.

Lead:  Non-profit organizations rely on volunteer leaders and board members.  Take a volunteer experience one step further by become a leader.  Great programs work with young people on how to be a effective leader of a social project,  Seattle Works being one example.

Innovate:  If you can’t find the right match for you, think about creating something new.  The Equality Trust, based in the U.K., provides a list of ideas.

Tom, good luck finding the right match for you, and do stay in touch!  I can’t wait to hear where you end up.