Category Archives: communication

Our Rights, Their Responsibilities

[In Being Wrong, I explored wrongness in a non-profit setting.  The Non Profit Quarterly just published an excellent article that breaks down the causes of foundation wrongness and ways to right those wrongs.  I was pleased to see an emphasis on creating a learning environment and an invitation to include the non-profits in the conversation.]

In 2003, I wrote an article about citizenship, exploring the growing divide between political and economic citizenship in a globalized world.  As I wrote then, “A Mexican living in Seattle bears rights that come from living in a liberal Western democracy, but those rights are not matched with responsibilities within the jurisdiction of Seattle. His economic responsibilities most likely still live in Mexico, giving him a personal investment not where he lives but where he comes from.”

This notion of divided rights and responsibilities comes to mind as I ponder concepts of community, particularly the construction of bi-cultural (or otherwise divided) communities organized around a humanitarian need.  Membership in a community is much like citizenship in a nation: it comes with a certain set of rights and responsibilities.  If I am a member of a group—say a board of directors or an alumni association—I can expect to receive certain information or opportunities in exchange for my commitment to help as I can.  Some memberships come with higher levels of expectation than others, but present in most is an assumption of mutual assistance.

Members of bi-cultural NGO communities also have rights and responsibilities, but like with the Mexican man, they are divided across borders.  These communities live under the strain that comes from the reality that we have most of the rights while our program partners have most of the responsibilities.  The simple fact that we control the organizational pursestrings, as beneficent as we may be, gives us power over the local project.  Money comes with reporting requirements, resulting in a high level of responsibility on their end to have clean books and clear results, let alone the responsibility of running an effective social change program within a turbulent society.  While we sit at our desks (working hard), they are dealing firsthand with the risks involved in working with impoverished people, not knowing if there will be enough money next year to continue the projects for which they stuck out their necks this year.

Increasingly non-profits are thinking about their work in terms of community-building that leads to transformational change.  As they do, engaging a framework that includes rights and responsibilities becomes critical to the construction of effective communities that reach across physical and power borders.  I welcome your thoughts on how best to do this.  My thoughts go to two main ideas:

Structure:  Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging, reminds us about the importance of creating structures that support the practices necessary in talking about such things as the rights and responsibilities of community members.  Small non-profits are indeed fascinating because they are structured communities—individuals with a shared interest who have gone through some formal process of incorporating into a structured group in order to better achieve their goals.  They evolve from an informal gathering of people into boards of directors, by-laws, and budgets. Integral to this evolution should be the on-going conversation about the balance of rights and responsibilities among all members of the group, both in-country and internationally.  Creating a structured way for this conversation to occur will better ensure its place on the community agenda.

Reciprocity:  Given the reality of money and power, it seems that the best way to offset the imbalance of rights and responsibilities between local and international partner is to increase their rights while increasing our own set of responsibilities.  They know what rights they would like, though they may not think about them as such.  Last I had this conversation with a partner, I heard a request for certainty around multi-year funding so that they could run a pilot program for at least two years.  This partner wanted access to financial information to know whether he could expect the same level of support year-to-year.  He wanted to hear about international opportunities to travel and join a larger network of like-minded people.  In most cases, partners want to feel a sense of dignity that they are a part of the leadership team.

What can we offer in return?  A commitment to be fully transparent about funding so that they know two years in advance if there will be enough money to start that pilot.    We can be deliberate in bringing our community of funders and volunteers along with them as they risk their social capital in the launch of new social change projects.  We can choose to be accountable to them as much as we are accountable to our own boards of directors.  There exists no international body that governs partnerships between non-profits here and there, so we have to create our own governance compact that articulates a clear set of beliefs and actions that support a more balanced set of rights and responsibilities.

Of course, in that evolution from community to structured non-profit, concepts of community can get lost under the files of annual reports and board minutes.  The round circle of collaborative decision-making can be replaced with the hard edge of hierarchy as communities grow to achieve efficiencies.    Such shifts make conversations about rights and responsibilities irrelevant because we no longer are discussing communities.  On the other hand, we can create structures and tools for reciprocity that embrace the power of community and the assets that a motivated group of people bring to any project.

I think back to the Mexican man.  He came to the U.S. because he faced limited opportunities at home.  As we partner with international projects changing political and economic landscapes to create new opportunities for would-be migrants,  let’s recast the imbalance of rights and responsibilities and build lasting communities based on greater equality.

What do you think?



“I work hard for… myself.”  – Patti LaBelle

Last Wednesday, a friend invited me to attend a Treehouse fundraiser lunch in downtown Seattle. I welcomed the opportunity to be a part of this organization’s heroic work supporting foster children.  Life is hard enough with a home and family; it was inspiring to see so many people come out in support of children in need.

At the lunch, American singer and foster parent Patti LaBelle was a special guest.  Soon into her script she announced: “I work hard for (…long pause…) myself.”  She explained (with demonstrative flair) that some people say that they work hard against cancer or to fight poverty, but that is not their full story.  She works hard on behalf of foster kids because of the rewards (the love) that she gained in return.  It isn’t as much about them as it is about her, she suggested.  I appreciated her point.

We don’t think enough in the non-profit sector about the motivations that drive us to get involved with the issues we care about.  We certainly don’t tend to talk about them publicly.  Just a few days before the Treehouse lunch, I was speaking with the Executive Director of Terrawatu, a locally-driven project in Tanzania that brings together indigenous communities and the modern world.  I was describing a local poverty-related project, and she asked: “What is their motivation?”  Why are they doing this work?  It was an excellent question that I was unable to adequately answer.

The quick and satisfying answer is that they—we—are doing the work because feels good to help someone in need.  For many people, that is truly why they get involved with the causes that they do.  But there are other motivations that can drive our engagement with poverty alleviation and social change.  It is important to consider them honestly because our motivations become realized in our outcomes.

There seem to be two main types of motivation: Connection and Standing.

CONNECTION. Simply put, we want to be a part of a community. As much as I might be drawn to the regular clucking of my Tweetdeck, no social media platform replaces the human connection achieved through a community of individuals working together for a good cause.  We receive a rush of adrenaline that comes from a sense of membership in something bigger than ourselves.  We work for, or volunteer with, international NGOs because we want to be a part of the lives of people we admire (or possibly think we can save) elsewhere in the world.

STANDING. Patti LaBelle brought up the other reason we get involved: because it helps ourselves.  The self-service side of NGO motivation is under-discussed because we are not supposed to admit that we are strengthening our own position or state of being by helping others.  Issues of power and money are swept under the rug as if they are negative by definition.  By avoiding the conversation, however, we are clouding our actions with unspoken limitations, which in the end will distort the outcomes that we are trying to achieve.  Three examples come to mind:

  • Money: A common question from people starting non-profits is: “How soon until I can draw a paycheck?”  A quick way to discredit an NGO leader is to state that he or she is doing it for the money, which, if true, would make me wonder why that NGO leader stays in this business.  But money is neutral, and the desire to earn a livable salary is not something slanderous.  Local leaders should earn a livelihood that allows them to serve others without worry about their own well-being.  Outside partners should likewise be compensated if possible and if (big if here) the local population being served sees value in their service.  Salaries are much like the American stock market—they can sway the focus to short term gains or be used to build long term capacity.
  • Power:  Few people admit to wanting to have dominion over others, but the reality of cross-cultural poverty alleviation is that it gives us power over communities of people living elsewhere in the world.  I participated in a career panel with someone working for USAID, and he took create pride in relaying how important it was that he traveled two out of four weeks a month in order to keep tabs on the locals.  It gave him power.  We all gain power when we have a say in the raising or spending of money used by someone else.  But like money, power is neutral.  We can also use our power to redirect how our communities engage in international partnerships.  Local leaders create projects to serve their communities, and by doing so, they expand their own stature.  The result of empowering people is that they have power, I hope.
  • Redress: A large number of people throw themselves into this work in order to honor the death or struggle of a loved one.  They are making up for mistakes made earlier in their lives or careers or trying to fix something that disadvantaged someone they know.  Making things right is so often a very heartfelt motivator—the emotion can be so pure in intent.

Any of these motivators can undermine collective progress—a community can get stagnant or inward-looking.  Making money, power, or redress our primary motivators can lead to short term results disjointed from the actual needs of the people that we are serving.  Too much “because I just want to help” can leave an organization without practical skills.  But in reality, we do this work because of a complicated mix of motivations that evolve over time.  Let’s talk honestly locally and with our international partners about what motivates us and them so that we can clear the air of unspoken concerns and be transparent in shaping programs that achieve outcomes that best help them and not just ourselves.

On what motivates philanthropists, I recently appreciated a posting by Parag Gupta on the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge Blog.  He describes three types of giving in what he calls ‘Realphilanthropik’: (1) Ego philanthropy driven by the social gain achieved through having your name attached to big gifts, (2) ‘Bang for Buck’ philanthropy guided by getting the most value for your money, and (3) Game-changing philanthropy aimed at changing the landscape in which a problem exists.  More on philanthropy in a future post!

Lost and Found in Translation

The Economist recently published a short piece on “the jargon of aid,” entitled “Anyone here speak NGOish?” Evidently, a woman in the Dinka tribe feels to be a “stakeholder” in her nation now that South Sudan is becoming its own country.  The article points out that small NGOs must speak NGOish in order to access grant-funding.  Sadly, this is all the case.

The ability to speak NGO is the reason why so many excellent projects fail to get funding on their own, and why many of us find employment in this sector.  I have often described my work as being the translator between “first world” funders and social change projects, and I don’t mean in terms of the languages actually spoken in these countries.  I flounder around Portuguese and Spanish and haven’t tried my way with other languages spoken in poorer places around the world.  But I speak NGOish, and thus many of the projects I work with have benefited from the grant funds that we manage to bring in together.

People have learned the language of those in power since the beginning of time.  If learning English, Chinese, or NGOish is going to give you, your family, or your community access to economic, political or cultural benefits, you would be foolish not to.   NGOish becomes the lingua franca for indigenous communities trying to access the largesse of international NGOs that over time have become a semi-permanent presence in their societies.  The fact that a Dinkan woman speaks NGOish is an indication of how much exposure she has had to NGOs in her daily life.

But we need to be careful what conclusions we draw from her ability to speak NGOish.

Language can just be a bunch of words put together.  Because they use NGO words does not mean that they think NGO.  I am reminded of a conversation I had once where someone was making an argument about the supremacy of American culture, as evidenced by two men, one Japanese and one Chinese, talking to each other in English.  Clearly the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world if two non-Americans choose our language to speak with each other, right?  (My British friends may argue that this proves British supremacy, but  that is a topic for another day.)  These men were just using English words in order to convey their ideas in a language they both knew.  They were not accessing American culture to do so, nor can we even be sure that they were using these words with the full sense of meaning understood by someone born and raised in Seattle.  While she may know the word “stakeholder,” I am sure that this Sudanese woman is not re-organizing her work according to a progressive logic model or cost allocating overhead to project budgets.  In my work with small bi-cultural social change organizations, there exists a significant gap in how the local project thinks about their work and how we here might conceptualize it, and this gap can get lost when both sides grab on to the words that we are supposed to use to get funding.

Language can be a significant gateway into culture.  As a German major at Swarthmore College, I remember Professor George Avery repeatedly admonishing us to stop translating our English thoughts into German words—it inevitably resulted in bad German.  Instead we should think in German and let the language flow as it would from someone raised in Heidelberg or Heilbronn.  We would then feel firsthand how language is a reflection of culture, thought, worldview, and so many other aspects of a society.

Since learning German, I have seen many examples of this same interplay between language and culture and its dissonance with NGOish.   An example from my work with a project in Brazil involves the term “social justice,” which means different things to different people depending on their race, position, culture, and context.  While some understand “justice” to be a call for equal treatment today, others (including funders) worry about its other meaning, that suggesting retribution and an historical compensation for past wrong.  A second example comes from my recent work with a project based in Chiapas, Mexico.  The term “accompany” is used within Jesuit communities to describe collaborative work with local people.  The term plays a critical role in how local people describe their work and is deeply rooted in local theology, and yet it falls well outside standard NGOish given that it conveys a vague sense of partnership without clear responsibility.

Social change requires local people to drive it—it is their society after all—and they need to be able to express their needs in their own words and concepts.  In the short term, people like me translate their words and concepts into answers that fit into word-limited grant forms.  Over time, they build capacity to answer the questions themselves in ways that resonant with large-scale NGOs.  These same large-scale NGOs hopefully hear their local partners and adapt their language to be more inclusive of diverse ways of thinking about concepts related to program design, accountability, and success.

But if we allow their language to be replaced by NGOish, we lose the nuance and cultural context related to how they talk about their community (“stakeholders”), ways of doing things (“their toolbox”), and reasons for celebration (“expected outcomes”).  We won’t be challenged to rethink our assumptions and develop new approaches that honor the complexity of their reality.  Our learning becomes lost in translation.

More on language: For a fascinating glimpse into language, see the Economist’s “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.” It is a fascinating review of some of the world’s most complex languages.