Category Archives: risk

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.

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?

The Impact of Small

On the morning of January 25, 2011, NPR interviewed a number of small business owners about what they hoped to hear President Obama say that night during his State of the Union speech.  The overall tone of their discussion was how little the President understood about small businesses as the engines of economic growth in the United States.  One businesswoman went so far as to give him an F for his performance from a business perspective.

This got me thinking about small organizations in general.  How well do we understand any small organization and the role that many of them play together in fulfilling a bigger mission?  In the case of business, this translates into a country’s economic growth.  Within the social change sector, this means the total impact of a whole lot of small initiatives on the big challenge of changing the circumstances around the world that allow so much poverty to persist.

Indeed, communities all over the world work to address their challenges and better their quality of life.  Local individuals are improving schools, providing healthcare, and addressing social issues, whether through “development” efforts, government public policy, community organizing, or advocacy.  They are standing tall and drawing on whatever connections and resources they have to defend their civil and human rights.  Economist William Easterly calls leaders of these movements “searchers” because they nimbly adapt local knowledge to find solutions that will stick within their society and culture.  Given that only people living within a society can effectively change that society in the long term, supporting these “searchers” sits at the heart of global poverty alleviation.

There is no shortage of organizations trying to do exactly that.  The National Center for Charitable Statistics, for example, cited over 20,830 non-profits in the United States at work in 2010 serving some international interest, and if the trend from the past two years continues, another one thousand or so U.S. organizations will join the global effort to address critical global issues in the next year.  These organizations hold over $30 billion in assets, a staggering amount given that the U.S. government spends $37 billion on foreign aid and diplomacy.  These organizations, along with others around the world, raise money, send volunteers, or consult on a range of issues from trade to technology.  Foreign resources typically make or break local organizations, alternately bringing in much needed money or moving on and leaving that organization struggling to sustain programs past the next funding cycle.

Those of us who follow “development” discussions hear regularly about the large players and their impact around the world.  They have media specialists and government affairs staff who further their message on the airways and within corridors of power.  How well do we understand small NGOs as the engines driving significant social change work?

Some ideas for improving what we understand about small non-profits within the social change sector:

1.       Invest in a collaboratory network of small NGOs and their international partners to allow information sharing and learning.  Too many small NGOs are working without a road map and in some level of isolation.

2.       Integrate funders—foundations, giving circles, school groups, and civic organizations—into this learning circle so that power and risk are shared across culture and class.  At the end of the day, working together will ensure that resources go where we most need them.

3.       Develop more holistic ways of measuring success beyond big numbers and short time lines.  It took hundreds of years to create societies in which poverty and other social ills are so firmly imbedded in daily life.  It will take time and nuanced shifts in local culture and institutions in order to make poverty less welcome in those societies.

As the business people wanted to remind President Obama, a lot of small makes something big.  This is true in social change as much as it is in business.