Category Archives: local leaders

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.


At a recent “development”-focused event, I got talking with a friend involved with several giving circles.  She was interested in knowing what funding this particular organization needed to move forward.   I responded that we had a basket of projects that all needed funding—it was more about finding the match than finding a project in need of support.  “We have programs for women and children, programs to put in stoves and cisterns.  If you have a human rights interest, we have several projects in that direction.  Ecological sustainability, food production… indigenous medicines and health care.  What are your interests?  We probably have a great match for you.”

To the outside eye, the funding process for social change projects must resemble the job of a used car salesperson.  While not cars on a lot, the communities with which we work have defined a whole spectrum of initiatives that would help them to solve their most pressing problems, and these projects often range in scope, theme, and purpose.  Within certain limitations (and effective NGOs know what those are), the donor can drive the conversation because it is highly likely that their interests can be met with an initiative.

Perhaps this funding structure is one way that social change projects set themselves apart from traditional “transactional” NGOs focused on delivering one service or product (i.e. micro-loans, mosquito nets, technology).  (I have written about transactional vs. transformational “development” here.)  If you consider society as a vibrant, hand-woven piece of fabric, each element of a society—its politics and power structure, economics, geography, culture, class and race dynamics, gender roles, etc. – are woven together into a resilient textile.  Effective social change means more than just pulling out one of these strands, but rather reorganizing the layout of color so that an entirely different textile results.  The only way to permanently end poverty is to change the society that allows it to persist.


The needs of small social change organizations and the interests of funders are moving farther and farther apart, perhaps jeopardizing exactly the social change that we hope will decrease global poverty rates.

The Collaborative Learning Project based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been a leader in promoting dialogue with recipients of aid around the world.  Their “Listening Project” engaged nearly 6,000 people in discussions about issues that local people believe need to be addressed to make aid more effective.

The “Listening Project” recently published a summary of what they have learned through all of these discussions.  One important conclusion is that local people are concerned about the system by which funding is given, not the amount.  They wish that donors would work together to pool money and address poverty in holistic ways, not through piecemeal funding that leads to too many intermediaries and too much administration to manage it all.  They talk about having “projectitis.”

If you think about the ubiquitous “logic model” tool, our culture can be defined as strongly focused on linear relationships and clear outcomes.  We tend to believe that one shift in a poor society’s culture can lead to a domino effect of change.  (The Asian Development Bank published an interesting article about “complexity theory” within development, urging practitioners to reconsider “command and control” approaches to poverty alleviation.)  As funders become increasingly concerned about evaluation, it is easier to measure the effect of one change rather than measuring change caused by a whole range of variables shifting through multi-dimensional social change work.  Projectitis, however, is getting in the way of local leaders receiving the general operating support that they need for their holistic, interconnected approaches to poverty alleviation.  It is increasing their reliance on outside partners who can manage of all this, not giving them more ownership and sense of control.


Most NGO leaders were hopeful that the onslaught of social media tools would help them to reach new audiences and expand their funding base.  The first half of this has certainly happened.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. have allowed NGOs to create followings of people around the world, extending our communities to people beyond our direct vicinity.  On the funding side, however, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that most non-profits have reported very little money raised through social media.  I have been repeatedly stumped by the anemic results of Facebook Cause campaigns conducted by different small non-profits with which I have worked.

Social media tools have led to projectitis on steroids with new sites launched weekly to help connect projects with people able to support them.  Web Advantage recently posted links to 30+ social media sites that promote “social giving.”  I was elated to find such a comprehensive list of virtual venues on which to post my basket of important initiatives.  The problem?  Most invite us to use members within our existing community to promote projects to their social networks.  (We were already doing that.)  Some of them cost money to join, a risky investment for small NGOs just finding their way with social giving.  And managing these on-line micro-solicitations for funding adds another whole layer of administration on small NGOs.  It seems like the old rules of relationship-building still apply within this new virtual world.

I was talking this week with the development officer of a leading local mid-size non-profit, and she noted that she recently realized that she was not managing a single general operating grant.  With the exception of a small percentage of funds coming from individuals, all of her funding was for defined projects.  This reality leaves little leverage for exciting initiatives that come at the margins of these projects.  Non-profits in general have less and less leeway to be nimble in response to changing conditions, as well as a decreasing ability to invest in organizational capacity building, holistic evaluation of their work, and cross-thematic initiatives.

It is hard to fundamentally change a hand-woven textile if you can only reweave a few of the strands.

A visual: Two slides that demonstrate how funding occurs now

Slide 1: A model for social change

Slide 2: Projectizing social change work.  The challenge is to fill in the gaps between projects.

With One Equal Heart

In celebration of UN World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development and their recently returned delegation to Chiapas, Mexico, One Equal Heart Foundation is holding an event at Seattle University on Thursday, May 19th.  I appreciate One Equal Heart for giving us an example of an organization that exemplifies how small NGOs can demonstrate within their structure the equality for which they are working. 

A few years ago, the inspirational Mariah Ortiz asked me to define Collaborative Social Change, a term that I was using to describe small NGO partnerships working across cultures.  I had come to believe that we needed a new way of thinking about two communities in different parts of the world working together.  It is one thing to work together against poverty, but what are we then working for?  A better society that is less hospitable to poverty, and that is achieved through social change, right?  Since only the society being changed can drive that change if it is going to stick in the long run, our relationship with them is as collaborator and partner.

I gave Mariah this definition for Collaborative Social Change:

Social change that occurs through the shared labor of two or more entities working in a relationship of equality, leveraging their unique resources, experiences, skills, or ideas to yield an outcome that significantly impacts society.

Not surprisingly, people elsewhere in the world had already come up with a more vivid expression for this concept.  Through Mariah, I learned about the work of One Equal Heart Foundation, a Seattle-based non-profit that supports the work of partners—the Mission of Bachajón and the Center for Indigenous Rights (CEDIAC)—in Chiapas, Mexico.  One Equal Heart Foundation takes its name from the Tseltal Mayan expression “jun pajal co’tanik,” which literally means “one, equal heart of all.”  The name reflects the spirit of the Tseltal Maya who say that when we live in harmony with each other, the Earth and our God, we walk together with “one, equal heart.”


One Equal Heart Foundation is committed as much to learning as it is to providing financial support.   Their work reminds us of the following:

Global economics impacts the lives of the poor.  In the Sacred Book of the Maya, corn is fundamental to the cultural identity of the Maya who call themselves the “People of Corn.” Corn is also the dietary staple and primary source of calories for the Tseltal Maya, and most families are subsistence farmers whose source of food is what they can grow on their land.  A variety of factors, however, are threatening the existence of native corn, for example NAFTA, biofuel-driven mass cultivation of African Palm over food crops, and genetically-modified/engineered seeds.

Poverty is complicated, with interconnected strands woven together like a vibrant Mayan K’ul (or Huipil in Guatemalan Mayan).  In the Mayan world, harmony is achieved by balancing the needs of the individual, marital couple, family,  community, and environment.  This balance is delicate, dependent on social, political, economic, and judicial structures that interconnect around it.  Mission/ CEDIAC partners talk about sustainability in terms of health, with three concentric circles.  Individual and family health relates to the conditions we need for our physical health, including access to medical care and a predictable nutritious diet so we grow to our full potential.  Environmental health includes clean air and water, healthy soils to support sustainable crops, and ecological strategies to live in harmony with the land, animals and plants.  Lastly, social health involves a situation in which people’s human rights are respected.  They have access to decent education and a way to make a living, and they do not live in fear of violence or displacement from their ancestral lands.  The work in Chiapas approaches sustainable development as a holistic and multi-dimensional process. Only by nurturing the whole can individuals live in harmony.

Conflict is best resolved through compromise and consensus around a collectively agreed upon solution.  Recognizing that it is not sustainable to simply punish perpetrators in cases of conflict, the Tseltal Maya Juridical System resolve conflicts by focusing on ways to engage the parties in dialogue. Restorative Justice challenges all involved to mend relationships and search for harmony as a fundamental requirement for our collective survival.


As development fads come and go, One Equal Heart’s partners have evolved their work over fifty years, demonstrating a long-term commitment through dynamic social shifts that have affected the lives of poor Chiapans.  Many organizations make passing reference to “participatory management” or “locally-driven social change.”  OEH and its partners model how two communities can partner in work for social change here and there.

Capacity building: A majority of  Mission/CEDIAC staff members are Tseltal Maya; every director who is not Tseltal is partnered with a Tseltal, and these two staff members work side-by-side implementing the work of their position. No one works solely in the office—even the Administration and Finance Team. All have field work that puts them directly in contact with the Earth and Tseltal communities.

Community investment:  The Tseltal Maya have a pre-existing system of cargos, or volunteer leadership posts, for carrying out the work that benefits the social good.   The Mission/CEDIAC staff draw on this system as they reach far beyond where staffing has capacity to go.

Local wisdom: Development of an indigenous college would keep young people local and decrease the number of Chiapans who migrate to other parts of Mexico and the U.S. in search of work.  Mission/CEDIAC staff members have created a model for higher education that partners young and old in order to temper the energy of the youth with the cultural wisdom of their elders.

Equal partnership: OEH board and staff developed a bi-cultural strategic plan that bridged together the opportunities and concerns of partners in the U.S. and Mexico.


A Mission staff member recently shared an anecdote about poverty alleviation in Chiapas.  One town in Chiapas was the third poorest in Mexico, according to a range of indicators examined by government officials.  In the aftermath of the Zapatista rebellion, the government decided to address the poverty that was causing civil strife and invested heavily in infrastructure projects.  The government paved roads and installed concrete floors in the homes of the poor.  The result?  The town became the second poorest town in Mexico.  (Indeed, other projects purporting to benefit the poor have the opposite effect, separating impoverished Maya from their ancestral lands.)  The indicators used by the government had little to do with the reality of poverty, and outside investment had the unintended result of drawing resources away from the area rather than investing in local solutions.

One Equal Heart and its partners in Chiapas use a Jesuit term, accompaniment, to describe their collaboratory work.  We and they are walking, talking, and laboring together for a better world—with one equal heart.

First word

“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.”
– Marge Piercy

As I start this new blog, I pause to remember all of the people around the world whom I have had the good fortune to meet– people who have not dallied for one minute in their tireless effort to make their communities healthier, safer, and more hopeful.  This blog is dedicated to them, as well as to their international partners who cross barriers of culture, power, and class to work side-by-side these local people as they address their most pressing needs.  As Marge Piercy goes on to say, “The work of the world is common as mud.”  Let’s jump in!