Category Archives: non-profit management

3 Cups. 2 Perspectives.

My initial reaction to the Three Cups of Tea criticism was from the perspective of an American non-profit manager focused on international poverty alleviation.  I agreed with the aid blogosphere questioning key elements of CAI management.  The board consists only of Greg Mortenson and two others?  He gets all of the royalties from his book, not the charity?  He takes ill, and only a friend can replace him, not a deputy already in place at CAI?  Clearly there were some longstanding management issues brewing under the surface of this heroic tale.

I turned to Pakistani English-language newspapers to confirm suspicions of local malfeasance.  I started with The Dawn, the most widely circulated English language newspaper in Pakistan.  This story wasn’t headline news, but Dawn’s blog published a post by DC-based Kalsoom Lakhani that criticized Mortenson for playing John Smith in a Pakistani version of Pocahontas.   The post received 44 comments;  by my superficial reading of names, only one Pakistani was critical of Mortenson’s work.   Over and over, responders implore the author to reserve judgment and to celebrate the fact that Mortenson did anything on behalf of Pakistani children.

It was Afridi’s comment on an Express Tribune column by a Pakistani scholar at UC Berkeley that made me realize the situation was more complex that originally thought.   “Yet more pseudo-intellectual pap from a Pakistani in the American ivory tower.”  I began to look at the bylines of writers, and by in large, those critical of Mortenson are based in the U.S. or work for international aid agencies.  I have no idea where people commenting live, but an overriding theme took shape.  This is less of a story of “he said, she said,” and more a story of two perspectives that coexist within one field of poverty alleviation.

Comparing apples to apricots

Several years ago, our family hosted a Pakistani NGO leader studying at the University of Washington, and he told us about his family’s abundant apricot harvest in Gilgit, Pakistan.  He planted an apricot pit in our backyard and told us that it would grow into a strong and productive tree.  I think about this imminent apricot tree while reading all of these blog comments.  People are speaking two different languages, engaging two different world views, and comparing proverbial apples to apricots.

On one side, people are talking about NGO accountability, accuracy, honesty, and effective governance, comparing Central Asia Institute to the American NGO ideal.  They feel betrayed by Mortenson, having bought into the story that he depicted in his books.

On the other side, people herald Mortenson for his sincerity, selflessness, humanity, and commitment to those people deemed second class by their own people.  In their view, CAI comes out strong when compared with Pakistani government programs, which historically have padded the pockets of government officials.  As Faizan comments, “Being a citizen of a state where the education is being circumvented by all democratic despots in the past,…even if Greg is [utilizing 40% of its funds to conduct educational activities], I am the one very much happy with that because we never attained 40% of our rights in anything including education, health, security, social justice, social status.”  As Faizan and many others point out, something is better than nothing.

And this response caught my eye:

I guess its finally the time to tell the truth. Mortenson sahib is no fraud or thief. I’m one of the little girls who entered the school built by him in his book. My picture is also on the book cover. So no one better to tell you about him. He has changed my whole life. now I work in an ngo in our village. If it wasn’t for him i would be illiterate and married with 5 kids not earning my own livelihood. I say wail to mortensen sahib our saviour.


As published reactions to Three Cups makes clear, bi-cultural NGOs operate in two very different worlds.  One side is held against an ideal standard of American/Western accountability with governance, accounting, and evaluation systems in place to demonstrate clear and transparent effectiveness.  The other side has a very different standard, one defined by existing structures marred by corruption and the legacy of colonialism.  Complex social structures and long timelines impact the delivery of aid. Those of us who have worked with international partners in poor places around the world have seen their appreciation of our help with very few questions asked.  Anything is better than nothing when you have little.

I hope that this Three Cups debacle starts some critical conversations among NGO leaders, recipients, and donors involved in bi-cultural NGO work.  Some topics might include:

How do we move away from “scaling up” to locally-driven social change?  One reason Mortenson has been so successful raising money is because he claims to have build 170 schools, serving 68,000 children.  Big numbers entice big donors, while real impact comes in the quality of engagement, not necessary the quantity.

How do we change the narrative of aid?  I have trained many interns on grant writing, and the narrative always goes like this: describe how really bad the situation is for these people, and then describe how your project will save the day.  It works—I have received many grants following this narrative.  The problem, however, is that it portrays local people as living without any resources or resourcefulness to use in solving their own problems, opening the door for us to save them.

How do we leverage opportunities for transformational change while providing critical services?  The only way to end poverty is to change the circumstances that cause it in the first place: change the education system, shift local culture away from corruption, and  commit ourselves to a culture of learning on both sides of the partnership.  Ashesi University in Ghana is one example of an education project that does this so well.  How do we do more of this?

How do we create bi-cultural boards of directors that bridge the two sides of these organizations?  There is no international accountability mechanism that links a board of directors here with a board in the country of operation.  In most cases, any linkage is made through the U.S. executive director, who sets the tone for bi-cultural exchange based on his or her management philosophy.  Without a new standard for cross-cultural accountability and learning, we will continue to be comparing apples to apricots in larger conversations about effective poverty alleviation.

We are still waiting for the apricot tree to grow out of our backyard, much as people wait for the truth of come out about CAI and Mortenson’s work in Pakistan.   After all of this time, I don’t expect a tree to grow because we live within different conditions.  I also don’t expect one truth to result from these inquiries because different cultural contexts impact our sense of the truth. Through cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-sector dialogue, we could move closer to building NGO structures that honor both sides—indeed all truths—in these discussions.


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?

Being Wrong

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves.  Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement.  Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.” Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (p.42)

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a growing trend around explorations of being wrong and ways to be right more of the time.  “Wrongology,” a term introduced by Kathryn Schulz terms in her excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is the study of being wrong in order to increase our chances of being right.  As Schulz describes in detail, the complexity of society combined with our own filters guiding what we believe has one result: the reality that we are going to be wrong more than we will be right.  How we handle being wrong speaks volumes about our values, our organizational cultures, and our ability to learn from our mistakes.  By embracing our errors and developing a belief in the inevitability of our wrongness, we stand a better chance of improving our service to the people our organizations are intended to serve.

Being Wrong speaks to so many issues that non-profit leaders deal with on a daily basis.  My thoughts center around three main questions that address the potential for individual, institutional, and cross-cultural wrongness.  Every problem begs a solution, so I end with idea to help swing the balance towards being right more of the time.

First my questions:

1. Which approaches to poverty alleviation today will be proven wrong tomorrow?

So many of yesterday’s theories have been proven wrong.  From the “education” of native children in Christian schools to free market enterprises that have undermined local educational systems to large infrastructure projects like roads and dams, the development field has tried a range of actions in the quest to address poverty.  All evidence shows that a good portion of what we are doing now is going to be proven wrong sometime in the future.  What can we do today to mitigate today’s errors, thereby speeding up right approaches to our world’s most pressing problems?

  • Given the power of social conformity and need for certainty, how do we shift our culture to give space to those with different beliefs, to consideration of new evidence, and to the development of solutions that acknowledge complexity over simple answers?
  • There is a moral aspect to being wrong; people judge you and your character.  How do we distinguish the ways that erring leaders handle their mistakes as evidence of their values from the simple fact of their wrongness?

2. How do we create public accountability that allows for error?

To get anything done, a community leader has to bring so many people along with him or her—staff, board members, donors, constituents—engaging in a marketing effort that makes it hard to admit later on that the idea, program, or cause was somehow flawed.  Once a non-profit leader takes over a cause, that leader needs to convince a range of stakeholders that their solution is the best, most effective, most efficient solution among many.   All efforts go into the full court press towards organization survival with little room for honest assessment.

  • How can boards of directors instill within an organization a culture that allows for error and learning from those errors?
  • How can grantmakers provide an honest forum for the sharing of error or uncertainty that doesn’t threaten future funding?
  • How can executive directors integrate an acceptance of mistakes into their organizational culture and provide learning opportunities for staff members?

3. How do we allow for error across cultures?

In working across cultures, there may come times when two leaders working in a relationship of equality are in a state of disagreement in which both are right within their cultures.  Cultural relativity can make a mess out of a traditional management structures, and yet simply proclaiming rightness on both sides creates a stalemate of leadership.

  • How do we use our shared values to guide discussion about possible future disagreement so to avoid cultural misinterpretation later on?
  • How do we better understand the social landscape of risk in either partner admitting wrongness?
  • How do we acknowledge the role of power in who is determined wrong?

And a possible solution:

Schulz’s book reminded me of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  If we as community leaders get things wrong so often, how do we improve our chances of getting things right?  I believe Gawande is on to something, that we can create a few key checklists that keep us on track in how we engage our partners and honor our mission and values for the long term.  Using a term borrowed from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we can create a system of “radical transparency” that allows for optimal sharing of ideas and learning.

I took a first stab at a Collaborative Social Change Checklist, which includes what I loosely termed an “Organizational Pre-Nup Agreement” that bi-cultural organizations might consider either upon starting their relationship or as soon as such an agreement occurs to them.  My checklist looks nothing like Gawande’s checklists for ensuring that a surgeon doesn’t chop off the wrong arm, but it may be helpful in thinking about ways that we can embed discussions about our errors into our daily social change activities.

As Schulz described, admitting our errors allows us to be a part of a dynamic journey of discovery rather than a static, didactic monologue about our rightness.  We build organizations that are learning communities as much as they are service providers.  That seems like the right way to work for a better world.

What do you think?