Tag Archives: smartaid

Driving Development

I went to the supermarket one time with a local colleague in [a country in Africa]. He pointed to a shopping cart like the one in this picture. “That’s how we often do development work,” he said.

“We talk a lot about locally-driven development. We say the community is in the driver’s seat, that there is local ownership.

But if you look a bit more closely, the set-up is more like that shopping cart. You see, the communities may believe that they are driving and we may say the same, but it is often the NGO and the donors who are actually pushing the cart towards their own agendas.”


Stuff expat aid and development workers like….

So the Wait… What blog is asking Where are the local aid and development worker blogs? and having a hard time coming up with an answer. Maybe “blogging” comes under that special category of “stuff expat aid and development workers like“.

Everyone’s heard of the “Stuff White People Like” list by now. But I couldn’t find a specific list of “stuff expat aid (and development) workers like.”

Batgung writes about “Stuff white expats like in Hong Kong” and reminds us that “being a White person is not entirely limited to skin color; it’s a state of mind.” There are plenty of great comments underneath too. The writers of Batgung however, are not specifically “aid workers” so they didn’t completely fit the bill for “stuff ex-pat aid and development workers like”.

Then there is Stuff White People Do blog with a post titled “Falsely Distinguish between (White) Expats and (Non-White) Immigrants”…. Interesting and it goes on the list of “stuff aid and development workers like”. But not quite exactly what I was hoping for.

Franceypants puts it simply:  Expats are the Whitest People around. “Here I am going on and on about being an expat when all along all I am is a white person who lives in a foreign country. And so are you.” She backs this theory with a solid argument.

I’d still love to see a nuanced list of stuff that expat aid and development workers like. If you know of one, please share!

In the meantime, let me start it off (in no particular order):

1) Blogging

2) Drinking alcohol

3) Drinking coffee

4) Having maids or criticizing other expats who have maids if they don’t have maids

5) Making fun of young volunteers

6) Complaining about marketers, fundraisers, journalists, donors, and corporations

7) Dating and/or marrying “local” people

8 ) Talking to drivers (their own personal drivers or taxi drivers or hired drivers… but yes, drivers)

9) Showing off how well they speak a local language

10) Making recommendations about eating or not eating local food/street food

11) Bragging about how sick they’ve been (giardia, malaria, dengue, amoebas, crazy insect bites, etc.)

12) Riding around in SUVs, land cruisers and 4×4’s or complaining about aid workers who do and bragging about how they take public transportation

*****

and…. (update) it seems expat aid workers like

13) bonding on Twitter over being expat aid and development workers… a little taste below from the Twitter hashtag #stuffexpataidworkerslike (check it!)

So @talesfromthhood and I decided to make it a regular occurrence. Check out www.stuffexpataidworkerslike.com



This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

This is Lesson 7 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

OK, so you’ve lunched with the head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from Giant Corporation X (GCX) a few times now. You’ve attended their annual meeting of women employees and presented to their human resources director and discussed what an employee engagement program might look like. You have a pretty good idea how much you can get from GCX in cash and in kind, and pulling this deal off will bump you up to your personal yearly revenue goal and make your CEO quite happy. GCX normally does Toys for Tots and Support the Troops kind of stuff and you are the one who’s finally gotten them interested in doing something for the kids “over there”.

The head of GCX’s CSR department comes up with a bright idea. Why don’t we send over some holiday gifts! They’ve read The Kristof. They know that girls need sanitary products to keep them in school and in addition, this is a perfect opportunity for GCX to break into the local BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market in 3 of their target countries. Maybe some branded tote bags filled with their sanitary products! Or perhaps some branded backpacks filled with a range of their low-end toiletries? Surely a win-win there. Not only will poor people get products to improve their hygiene (toothbrushes, soap, tooth paste) but they will also be exposed to GCX’s brand! Or perhaps a 1 for 1 campaign – for every blond plastic doll you buy, CGX will donate one to a poor girl and the gifter will get a jointly branded thank you letter back from the poor girl showing some gratitude. (GCX employees really don’t trust charities and this is a great way to both prove that the dolls are actually arriving into the hands of the impoverished girls and to make the gifters feel that warm glow of charity do-gooding.)

GCX will also send over their 3-member PR team and one lucky employee do-gooder (chosen through an employee sales contest or some other motivating internal initiative) to do some video and photo shoots for their monthly magazine, featuring your joint program to give gifts to the needy. It will be great PR. You’ll go to a “Development Lite” country (the Dominican Republic is always a good choice) for the trip —  small country with low crime rates, easy-to-reach extremely poor communities near the capital, beautiful hotels and nice beaches, and a quick flight from the US….

Sweet deal, and you are golden.

That is, until the program team gets wind of your success. Damn haters. They give you crap about the idea and you’re at a total loss as to why. Who could be so cold-hearted that they would refuse families hygiene products, or girls sanitary pads or children their Christmas gifts? And this arrangement is so clearly an entry level deal that can lead to so much more.

Well, let me tell you a secret – A handout is a handout is a handout.

And your program staff are pissed because they know that you will probably win out in the end. After all, your organization is struggling in this economy, and the branding and potential additional funds that this handout program can offer will be quite hard to ignore.

But we’ve known for a very long time that handouts are bad for development. They destroy community development work because they confirm the illusion that people from the outside will come in to give things away and resolve community problems. Read about halfway down in this article for one example of how Tom’s Shoes’ Buy-One-Give-One project has created a mythological idea that families don’t need to prioritize shoes for their children because outsiders will eventually come in and hand them out.

Handouts mean that people stop working to improve things for themselves, and they wait for someone to come in and do it for them. Handouts mean that communities don’t own their own development, and they are not finding sustainable solutions to their predicaments. Handouts don’t help, they hurt. Your colleagues in program are thinking long-term, not short-term, and they are trying to get communities to do the same.

Handouts not only spoil the hard work that your organization has been doing since the 1970s or 80s to move away from a method that set back communities around the world, but they ruin the chances of any other NGO, community based organization, government program or motivated local community member or group to get the community to move forward on its own.

Handouts don’t help people’s dignity and self-esteem, they reinforce the idea that people can’t help themselves.

Corporate handout programs might be a short-term gain for you and for recipients of the handouts, but they represent a long-term loss for community self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate goal of most development programs. Think about it. Is that what you really want to support?

In addition, handouts of products and openly pushing particular brands and products is ethically questionable. Especially if by accepting an agreement to work with GCX you are locked out of working with Giant Corporation Y (GCY) or with a local provider of the same products, or if your employees effectively become brand ambassadors for GCX or GCY, regardless of their products’ fit with the local context or the unfair competition that GCX or GCY might be giving to the local producers of such products.

Corporations are looking for short- medium- and long-term gain when they engage with non-profits. So why are non-profits often looking only at the short-term financial gain when they negotiate with corporations instead of thinking about the long-term impact that a corporate handout program can have on community development? Are corporations really that much smarter than non-profits? Come on, people.

Good development programs stopped doing handouts years ago and it’s been a long, slow struggle for communities to recover from them. Supporting handouts via a corporate partnership is no different than doing them via the normal budget.

So do successful and sustainable programs a favor. When you see the handout initiatives coming, redirect GCX and GCY to something else. Use your creativity to reorient their handout idea towards a different idea that will not set the work in the community back by 30 years.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


C’mon play the game

Here’s a funny story.

The director of an organization where I worked had an outside research group come in and take us through some really interesting training and discussions around how we framed our communications and our work, and how the public and the media see aid and development, and why it is so difficult to engage the US public in international development issues and giving.

The facilitator brought up many of the themes highlighted on the blog “Good Intents”, such as the perceptions that it’s up to the US to go and save the world; and showed us research on the public’s erroneous perception that the US spends a larger percentage of its budget on foreign aid than any other country.

We discussed how important it is to change that thinking and to engage the US public in a less isolationist and more interdependent view of the world. We took on a commitment to ensure that our own publications would tell a different story and to try to work with our sister organizations to move the US public towards a different understanding of the kind of work that aid and development organizations do.

I was really excited about this new direction, given that I’m not a big fan of traditional marketing. (See my “This is for My Corporates” series and The Great Divide, for example).

A high profile disaster happened soon after our workshops, and I was called up to go. It would be an office job, intense work but nothing majorly dangerous and not much suffering involved. It would be an extended time period though, and I’d have to leave my kids home for much longer than I was used to.

I negotiated around with work and figured out my family stuff like I always do. I was excited to go.

The director came over a few days before I was to leave telling me he’d asked the communications team to get some media coverage of the fact that I would be going because it would be a really good story.

“So, are you nervous about going?” he asked me.

“No, not really. I’m actually excited.”

“Oh, but you must be worried about leaving your family behind to go and help, I mean, you are a single mother and your kids are still small. You’re really making a huge sacrifice.”

“Oh…. I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I guess so, but actually I don’t mind going at all, it’s part of my job, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes, but not everyone does that and this must really difficult for you. You must be at least a little scared to go. You don’t really know what you’re walking into.”

“Well, it’s pretty much going to be an office job in [insert name of big city that hasn’t been affected by the disaster]. I mean, I’m not going to be in the trenches, and the disaster happened over a month ago, so I really don’t think there’s much danger for me.”

“Well, yes, ….”

I guess our comms team didn’t pursue the hot media opportunity.

Funny how organizations can be schizophrenic like that. Giving you training one day about how you should all be working in a concerted effort to change the public’s perceptions, and then asking you to play the game and reinforce the same old story the next day. Always between a rock and a hard place.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

I’m really pleased to welcome my new friend J. who blogs at Tales from the Hood for a first guest post here on ShotgunShack!

J. gives us Lesson 6 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

 

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 6:  Win-win or forced marriage?

For those of you whose job it is to raise support of different kinds for your organization from for-profit corporations, I’ll go out on a limb and guess that probably the hardest part of your job is getting your very own colleagues over in the programs department to support you. I’m guessing that you’re more than just a little bit frustrated by the push-back and the foot-dragging and the nit-picky nay-saying over what probably seem like obvious “win-win” ideas to you.

So let me give you a heads up. Here are a few things that you should know about aid-worker culture while you attempt to persuade us to work with you as you go about your job of working with corporations to gain their support for your employer’s programs, whether through cash grants or gift-in-kind (GIK).

That don’t impress me much… We don’t really care who you sat next to at what roundtable and what Fortune 500 corporation they’re the CFO of. We’re not interested in hearing the long history of your schmoozing so-and-so. It doesn’t impress us to know that your “contact” plays golf on Tuesdays with the President…

Yeah, yeah, we understand that these things are important in your world and that schmoozing is an important skill. We don’t want to disrespect the hard work you’ve done cultivating relationships with your potential donors. But often it feels as if you’re coming to us with the expectation that your schmoozing is what will make our decisions about which opportunities to pursue and which to leave on the table. However, you should know that from our perspective the thing that matters most and that should trump all other considerations is:  what is good for participants in our programs in the field?

And so, when you come to talk to us about corporate opportunity X that you’ve been schmoozing and wining and dining and playing golf over, what we really want to know right up front from you is: what is on offer and under what conditions? From our perspective it begins and ends there.

Forced marriages. Similarly, it’s a huge turn-off when somewhere near the beginning of your pitch to us is the issue that “this relationship is hugely important.” Maybe if we agree to take a grant to do this kind of lame project, this corporate donor will “trust” us and work more with us in the future on projects that are better. Maybe this is a very high profile corporate donor and having them on our organizations’ corporate CV will make our employer look very good. Maybe the amount of money or value of GIK on offer is so large that the executive team really wants to find a way to say “yes.”

We’re not naïve. We understand that these are very real considerations and that give-and-take is just a part of how the real world works. But when these kinds of issues – rather than what is good for the communities where we work – drive decisions, it makes us feel dirty. When the importance of a relationship with corporation X in the US or Europe takes priority over what’s good for the field, it makes us feel like we’re being married off without consent so that you can collect the dowry and get in good with the big boys.

Changing “game-changing.” We can smell a sales-job a mile away. Particularly when you say something like, “this is potentially game-changing.” Once you utter those words, we know you’re talking smack. Why? Because in our view the real “game” of relief and development work is out in the field, where the rubber meets the road, in the communities where we work. Unless you can convince us that you have credentials in that sphere, you don’t know the game well enough to play, let alone change it.

Two hearts livin’ in two different worlds… Simple, but important. Many of you earned your street cred in the for-profit corporate world by persuading people to go along with your ideas. Maybe in sales. Many of us earned our street by going into impoverished, depressed, sometimes terrible places where it was our job to listen to local people, to analyze problems, to consider operational contingencies, and to consider ideas from as many angles as possible before undertaking them. A lot of what we do even amongst ourselves will often feel like so much picking apart of ideas, semantic hair-splitting, fretting about what might go wrong. Remember, for every Business Roundtable or AMCHAM meeting that you attend, we also attend a coordination meeting in the field or a technical working group. For every corporate grant win that you get to feel proud of in your world, we potentially have to endure glowering looks of colleagues in other agencies or host government counterparts for having sold out.

In short, your win is sometimes our loss. What’s more, a win between corporation X and NGO Y in a developed country can mean a distinct loss on the ground in poor communities. We’re not trying to be difficult. But until the people we work with on the ground in communities finally have a seat at the table, it is our job to do all we can to keep those losses from happening.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

This is Lesson 5 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your Language, Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?, Lesson 3: What’s “The Field” Got to Do with It?, and Lesson 4: People are not Props.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 5: Purpose Motivation is stronger than Profit Motivation

As different as the corporate and non-profit sectors are, and as hard as it is to get us to change and see the corporate light, you’re going to have to work with us if you plan on sticking around at a non-profit.

We got connections. We got social capital. We got experience in the field. A lot of us actually really do know what we are doing. Plus, we’re your access point for your donor magazine stories and your PR photos. If you learn how to talk with us… if you spend some time on the ground understanding that the challenges we face are not simple and that the root of the challenges is not our lack of a corporate mentality… if you remember to see that the bigger goal is the VISION not the MONEY… if you avoid exploiting the people in communities where we work for your marketing campaigns, we will probably get along just fine after the initial hiccups.

If you leave your ego at the door and come in to learn and converse rather than demand and mandate, people will eventually welcome you. We’ll learn some of your corporate ways too, we’ll blend them with our non-profit ways, and we’ll do even more quality work, all of us together.

Well, that’s my logic anyway.

But if you’re still thinking that what a non-profit needs is a good corporate shake up, some good old fashioned business models, then watch this video The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It’s based on Dan Pink’s book Drive, and it speaks in a language that may be closer to corporate speak than what I’m capable of.

Pink writes that that for simple, straightforward tasks, the old model, the carrot and stick idea works; paying people a reward to do better works. But when a task gets more complicated and requires conceptual and creative thinking, those kind of motivators don’t work. (Note: He says that you should pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table and allow people to focus on the work itself, which I totally agree with.)

Skip to minute 5 of the video for Pink’s conclusions.  He says that there are 3 factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery and purpose. He says that more and more, businesses and organizations want to have a “transcendent purpose” because it makes coming to work better and is a way to get better talent.

He says that “When the profit motive becomes un-moored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.” “When the profit motive becomes unhitched from the purpose motive, people don’t do great things.” “Companies that are flourishing are animated by purpose.”

The majority of work that non-profit employees (except perhaps the finance and administration departments) do is not factory work. Not repetitive. Not mechanical. The majority of our work is relationship building, knowledge management, co-designing and complex problem solving. And we already have a purpose. That purpose is what brought most of us to work at the organization. We have a vision we are working towards, and it’s a lofty one.

So, considering that autonomy, mastery and purpose are what seem to motivate people. Considering that purpose motivation makes for better outcomes. Ask yourself: Are you actually killing off one of the best things your non-profit had going for it? Are you dooming the organization that you’ve come in to improve because you are shifting the organization’s focus from the vision to the money, and you are making profit motivation overshadow our existing purpose motivation?

Why would you want to do that?

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 4: People are not props

This is Lesson 4 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your Language, Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t? and Lesson 3: What’s “The Field” got to do with it?

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series is for you!

Lesson 4: People are not props.

The work we are doing is about the real-live people featured in the glossy photos in the donor brochure, not about the dollars or euros or pounds or yen that the brochure brings in. It’s about the real-live people whose stories are used to grab attention in that catchy advocacy campaign, not about the number of addresses you are going to add to the email solicitation list. It’s about the kids who are going to be able to stay in school, and the fact that their children’s health and education will probably improve because their parents attended school, not about the fact that you are going to get a ton of PR because a big celebrity is giving a big donation for those children.

So don’t lose sight of that. This is about people. About Real. Live. People. They are as real as your husband. As real as your wife. As real as your children. As real as the neighbor you don’t get along with. They are just as complex and imperfect as people who you know personally. Just as intelligent. Just as irritable and even irritating sometimes, like all people. And those of us who work on the ground work personally with them on a daily or weekly basis.

So when you get push back from us on how you want to portray people in your marketing campaigns, on how you want to simultaneously simplify and exaggerate (or make up) their stories to get a bigger “lift” in your direct mail piece, try to understand. We are picturing our friends, our neighbors, people in communities that we work with regularly, our own children in those campaigns. In those advocacy photos. On those TV commercials.

Imagine if it were your child on a billboard.

No, I mean really, stop and imagine.

Your kid was playing outside last night, went to bed without a bath. They come around with a camera in the morning. You say wait, let me tidy him up first. They say no, this is more realistic. You don’t want say no because you’re afraid it will seem rude. They go ahead with the photo shoot. You sign some consent forms in legalese, and next thing you know, there’s your un-bathed child up there on a billboard, maybe smiling or laughing, maybe not. Possibly his nose is running a little or he has sleep in his eyes. His hair is messy. The label next to him says “POOR and NEEDY”. Feels great, huh?

Or someone photographs your beautiful daughter. They put her face on a direct mail piece. Sure her name is changed, but there’s her face. It’s next to big red letters saying “desperate” or “trafficked” or “abused” or “HIV positive”. It tells a story about how you and your community are incapable of protecting and caring for your children and need outside help. Depending on the imagination of the creative director of the marketing piece, you as a parent are either a villain or a martyr or an uplifting hero. No one actually asks you for your real story, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the story that the target demographic wants to hear. The story that moves them to donate. Now your daughter’s photo and this made-up story get mailed out to hundreds of thousands of people in another country, and emailed to another huge number of people. Maybe it even goes up on the home page of a big organization’s website.

Since you’re good at this imagination thing, turn back into yourself in your current job at your INGO or imagine that you are a community outreach staff person.

Picture yourself going out to the community where you’ve taken photos and film recently. Arrange a community assembly. Stand yourself in front of the whole community and show them what you’ve done with their pictures and their stories. Translate it all into their language so that they can read or listen to every word that you’ve said about them. See what they think of it.

Uncomfortable much?

Yes, yes, you’ll say, but we need to raise money! But this is what works! This is what people respond to!

And I will say back to you:  Find another way. Stop marketing to the lowest common denominator because it makes you the lowest common denominator. If you can’t get people to support the real work you do on the ground, you are not doing your job. The real work is way better than those stupid commercials and those pathetic direct mail pieces. Figure out how to get people to understand it.

People in communities are not props.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series!

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with the helpful prodding of my assistant Al Cohol). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the span of a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

This is Lesson 3 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your Language and Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you!

Lesson 3: Get your ass to the field

The actual work that non-profits do on the ground is about as different from their commercials as the size and color of the close up Big Mac you see on the McDonald’s commercials vs. what you actually get when you eat there, but in a different way. (Not that I ever eat there, just trying to make a point).

Those 30 second bits you see on TV are, get this, ADVERTISEMENTS designed to create an emotional response so that people will donate money.  So don’t believe them, even if you are in charge of making them. (And I get into that in another post)

Go to the ground to understand reality. Leave your tidy office full of giant glossy posters of beneficiaries, and ethnic touches from around the world, and hushed tones of people answering donor calls and go see the actual work on the ground. It’s like breaking out of a stifled photograph and walking into a complex and layered 3-D movie. Like going from Cliff Notes to the depth and beautiful prose of a good novel.

You need to do that to have any kind of nuanced understanding of how the pieces of this thing we call “development” or “humanitarian aid” fit together. You’ll see things that amaze you. You’ll discover a respect for people that you never had. If your organization is any good, you’ll see that the actual work being done is way more complex than what the commercials tell you and it will take you awhile to process that. (Note: I am not saying good organizations should have stupid commercials, but currently stupid commercials are the norm in the world of non-profit work.) You’ll see things that piss you off, internally in your non-profit and externally in the community. And if you are sharp, observant, chill and open to listening, you will better understand why those things happen.

I don’t know about you, but if I were going to manage something, I’d sure as hell want to know what I’m managing. And if I were going to solve problems, I’d want to know what the roots of those problems are, and what’s been tried in the past to resolve them, and if the attempted solutions didn’t work, I’d want to discover why. Hint: It’s probably not because everyone is stupid and incompetent (though some people definitely are… the trick is knowing who is and who isn’t). It’s probably because the problem is complex. Or because people are stuck thinking about it in an old way. Or because power dynamics don’t allow the problem to be addressed. Or because of the multiple pressures put onto people from all sides. Or due to inherent contradictions in the system. Or any one of a million other things.

The quality of your work, and the leadership and support you can give to the rest of the organization will improve exponentially after you go to the field. So do it. As soon as possible. Please. It’s hard to take you seriously until you have.

Get the bigger boss to authorize you to really work on something in the field, to work with a team to really get something implemented. I knew a guy once who became a general manager at a hotel. As part of his training, he had to work a week or 2 in each of the departments. He did laundry. He did restaurant and room service. He worked the front desk. Something like that would help you get a sense of things.

Spend some time there, on the ground. But don’t go to the field in a bubble. Don’t stay in the office. Don’t do short day visits to see a ton of showcase projects and children dancing in traditional costumes. Don’t let the local office do that to you. Spend time in communities too.

And while you are there, don’t feel sorry for people. Nobody needs your pity, it just gets in the way of things. Most people probably don’t feel sorry for themselves, so why should you? They’re getting by just like everyone is. So respect people and their dignity. You and your agency are just one small part of their lives except in really extreme cases.

And don’t be surprised if you arrive to a health center or a community and there are 500 people there to welcome you. That is normal. That is what people do. Don’t be blinded or sidetracked by the pomp and ceremony. They do it for everyone who visits. You’re not special, and it has nothing to do with the quality of our programs or the quality of your work.

Be open. Learn. Observe. Ask. Share meals in the community and at the office. Stick around long enough so that you are not the center of attention all the time. Sit on the ground if everyone else is. Stop taking pictures and just experience things. Take a bucket bath. Sleep in a hammock. Ride public transportation or in the back of a pick-up truck. Eat street food. Share an office and a computer. Figure out how to meet your deadline when there’s a 24-hour power cut or when it takes 6 days for you to get someone’s signature on something. Go to someone’s house for dinner. Shift the focus to the real core. To people. Don’t get frustrated that things aren’t moving at your pace. Understand that your pace isn’t the pace of most of the rest of the world and deal with it. Learn from people you work with. See what the work is all about, spend time listening.

And don’t ever say things like “Well, why don’t you just…?” Yep, and why don’t you just tell the Tea Party the truth about Obama’s birthplace. Or just provide more resources to urban public schools that are under-performing. Or just get people to eat healthy and start exercising. Or just bring the troops home.

The world of non-profits is a funky place. It’s not like where you come from. In order to do your job well, you need to understand it. Don’t barge in and drop your corporate solutions on everyone. Organizational culture is hard core at non-profits. And that will frustrate you immensely. It frustrates us too. But sometimes there are real reasons we don’t do things how you’d imagine we should. And you need to understand things in order to sort the bullshit from the reality.

So spend at least 6 months to a year listening, experiencing, and learning, because it will take you at least that long to even begin understanding. Then you’ll be able to talk and listen to people in a genuine way from the right place, from the stomach, from the heart. When you know what you are talking about, and people trust you, THEN when you ask them questions about why they don’t do this or that, they may give you a real answer instead of one designed to please you or one that avoids outing their colleagues. Blend your business savvy with your gut and your heart and you’ll be a huge asset to everyone, in the non-profit sector… or even back in the corporate world.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with some spirits that loosen the tongue). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the span of a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 2: So y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

This is Lesson 2 in the This is for my Corporates Series. Read Lesson 1: Watch your Language.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you!

Lesson 2: Don’t lose sight of the larger goal.

I don’t know what the corporate sector is like, but a lot of people who work in aid and development are in it because they believe in a vision. (Note: I normally only hang out with people who give a shit, so this post may be slightly biased towards their frame of reference.) They believe in making the world a better place. (Hell, maybe you’d even say you joined the non-profit world from the corporate sector because you wanted a job with meaning.)

Local aid and development workers want to push their countries forward, to improve health, education, human rights, and the  political and economic systems. They’d like to see their country progress to be more self sufficient. (Plus development organizations often pay more than government, though much less than the UN, and people feel they can actually make a difference at an NGO, rather than what they can accomplish working in government). Foreigners working on the ground, the ones I hang out with at least, want the same thing, to work towards the vision.

People who work with development programs don’t see growth and branding and marketing as a means to grow a business and make shareholders happy. They see them as a means to an end. That end is the vision, the larger goal. A lot of times they feel more accountable towards communities and the countries they live in than towards you and your donors over there in the head office, or in Europe or North America or wherever, regardless of who those donors are.

When the head office sends out congratulatory emails for huge grants raised and no emails for huge numbers of lives improved via small grants, it seems like all the head office cares about is money. When you focus only on the cash, we see you as trying to grow the organization for the sake of growth. It starts to sound like you view people on the ground as your personal employees, working for you to raise money for your own glory, instead of us all working together to implement programs to achieve the vision we signed on to when we started working here.

When you talk about needing to raise our profile, bring in more donors, do advocacy, and get more money, remember that we are doing that for a reason: to improve more lives. More often than not, unless you are speaking at a big event to lots of staff to motivate them, you forget that last bit of the phrase. You lose sight of the larger goal. And people roll their eyes at your empty words. The vision seems like an afterthought and that bugs us.

We are not naive. We know that we need money to run our programs. We probably understand that even better than you because we are the ones suffering budget cuts and skimping by to stay within overhead rates and trying to explain those cuts to communities and local partners. But here’s the thing:  the point is to raise money to do programs that will help to achieve the vision, NOT to do programs so that you can promote them in order to raise money. You twist it around backwards sometimes.

And that rubs us the wrong way. Most of us really do believe in that vision shit.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings (often with the helpful prodding of my assistant Al Cohol). In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year since 1995. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


This is for my Corporates. Lesson 1: Watch your language

This is the first in a series called This is for my Corporates.

If you are a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series is for you!

Lesson 1: Corporate language is different from development speak

Your use of language says a lot about you. People mistrust you anyway because you are new. And corporate. If you come in talking all kinds of corporate smack, people will give you a polite (or not so polite) talk to the hand reaction. So you need to alter your language from corporate to development speak.

Stop referring to people in communities or staff in your sub-offices overseas as clients. Use the term partners; it should be a relationship between equals. Stop saying that you are marketing ideas or funding opportunities to people working on the ground, it’s a turn off. Instead you should be listening to them and supporting them to do what they think is best in the local setting. They’re not there for you to sell them your ideas or your products or your solutions, or those of your donors.

If you treat people as partners, as equals, without being patronizing (because you think the corporate sector is superior to the non-profit sector), people might listen to your ideas. But if you think of this as selling your ideas and solutions to clients, if you try to push things on people who don’t see the need for them or don’t think your solution is right for them, you are going to fail.

And anyway, in the business world, it’s the client who has the money, so your metaphor is screwed up to begin with; because in this case, you are holding the purse strings as well as trying to market your services, solutions, and ideas to people in your sub-offices.  So basically it’s a false metaphor because you have all the power in this set-up.

So talk about partnerships. Work with people to identify where the field priorities and your funding possibilities coincide, share opportunities, innovations and trends you are seeing, and listen to what your field staff have to say also because a lot of cool ideas come from them too. If you do that, then bienvenue.

Be careful using the term Return on Investment. Development is about behavior change at different levels. When you want to know the ROI for a program designed to improve gender equality, community empowerment, promote peace or the like, people are just going to make stuff up. Social change is not immediately measurable and tangible. Don’t talk about ROI as if social change is as simple as some concrete inputs and outputs and viola. Development is not a product you’re making in a manufacturing company. Think about how social change works in your own society/country. Things take time and you need to realize that.

You can use the term evaluation. Most people on the ground are happy to talk about evaluation – they want to be evaluated, because it tells them where they can improve and if they are getting it right. They’ll groan over the time it takes away from their unbelievably heavy daily workload, but for the most part, they want to know the results that their work is having. However, impact takes time. Don’t talk about evaluating impact until enough time has passed for there to actually be impact.

So learn the language, but even more importantly, learn what terms like “partnership” actually mean to people. Learn how non-profits see things. It will make your job a hell of a lot easier. People will trust you more, and maybe they will learn some of your ways too, and soon they will be almost as slick and snappy as you. Almost.

—–

More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates Series:

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or forced marriage?

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

*The Lessons are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over the past 15 years. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest or contribute a topic, hit me up. What do corporates do that really bugs you?


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