July: How Serious are We About Long-Term Impact?

July: How Serious are We About Long-Term Impact?
July 2010 Newsletter

This Month’s News
One Week Left to Enroll in July Online Courses:
Learn how to design and fund sustainable, impact-oriented development projects. We are offering our most popular course ‘From the Ground Up’ again in July; participants from 67 different countries have enrolled in this course since January. See what students are saying.

OL 101. From the Ground Up: Designing and Funding Sustainable Development Projects
Gain an insight into contemporary methods of developing community-centered, sustainable projects. Develop a real project in real time

OL 102. Project Architecture: Managing for Impact
Imbed impact into your project with a powerful set of management tools: Logframes, detailed budgets, compelling proposals, M&E plans.

Over 150 people from 50 countries joined the new CSDi Development Community in its first three weeks. Colleagues are actively exchanging information on adapting to climate change, food security, participation, conservation, health and hygiene, governance – and host of other topics. The CSDi Development Community invites people active in development or interested in learning, to share resources & collaborate with each other online in developing sustainable, impact-oriented tools and solutions for development challenges.

Fan us on Facebook. Please visit our new Facebook Page – CSDi Development Community. We are looking for a volunteer savvy in social networking to moderate this site. Please contact us here: Development.Community@csd-i.org .

How Serious are We About Long-Term Impact?
Yesterday a friend who works for a US nonprofit wrote me and asked me to recommend a few exceptional “highly impactful international nonprofit organizations” that are community-centered and focus on sustainability. She is assembling a list of 10 of these organizations in preparation for a board retreat on the best practices of the best nonprofits.

I was stumped; I could only think of one or two exceptional nonprofits that met all the criteria for excellence that she listed in her email. Over the past eight years in Guatemala I have worked with over 100 nonprofits and donors in a problem-solving capacity; so unfortunately problems are my lens. When I look at what NGOs are doing here today, in light of the scale of the problem, and in the light of sustainability and long-term impact, I’m not seeing enough success stories. This is why I was motivated to start the Center.

I chose to start the Center for two reasons. Today it is well acknowledge that development isn’t working very well. I wanted to be able to research “what works in development” and disseminate my findings. The second reason was that the problems that I’ve seen in nonprofits amount to a relatively small number of problems, but are common among the different organizations. I began to realize that if I could proffer solutions for a few common organizational and programming problems, and make that information accessible online, I would be able to help a greater number of NGOs.

I’m going to write a list below of the common pitfalls that I see Northern nonprofits fall into that reduce the impact of their programs here in Guatemala. But first let’s talk a bit about the magnitude of the problem. The problems in the world are huge. One example is that the United Nations recently announced that hunger has been on the increase and that today over 1 billion people are chronically hungry. A billion people, everyday. Sophisticated donors and NGOs have begun to realize that if we are to move out of reverse and into forward gear we need to start working with silver bullets: we need to start working in development using tools that have shown evidence of working and to design our programs to have impact.

What is impact? The World Bank defines it as “the long-term, sustainable changes in the conditions of people and the state of the environment that reduce poverty, improve human well-being and to protect and conserve natural resources.”

A practical example of this could be that your NGO goes to a community and finds lots of children that are chronically ill. Your NGO implements a project designed to return the children to health. When the project is over, your NGO moves on to a different community. If you were to return to that village in five years, will the children still be healthy? If they are then you could conclude that your project had impact. A lot of different components go into ensuring that projects have impact and this is why it’s so elusive and difficult to achieve. But in my observation most of the problems have to do with a lack of professionalism and a lack of proper planning.

I’m going to list below a few common problems that I see with projects in Guatemala that reduce their potential impact. If you’re concerned that your programs aren’t impact-oriented and would like to make some positive change, addressing any single one of the problems listed below could be transformational for your organization.

Expertise. The Instant Expert: Amateurs trying to do in the developing world what professionals do in the developed world.
You see it all the time in Guatemala. Someone comes down from the States on holiday for the very first time, visits a poor village, sees lots of sick little kids, and immediately overlays their North American sense of what’s right onto the situation. They say to themselves “what these people need is piped-in water, that’ll make these little kids healthy again.” This person has no experience in international development, they’ve never worked with another culture before, and they don’t know anything about developing water systems, but in a heartbeat, they become instant experts. They vow that they’re going to return to this community and put in a water system.

There are two problems with this scenario relating to impact. The first, is that after evaluating hundreds of health projects, researchers have come to the conclusion that putting piped water into a community is not the first thing to do in a health project for improving children’s health; the facts show that other things are more urgently needed first. The second is that researchers, after evaluating hundreds of water projects in developing nations, have come to the conclusion that just shy of 50% of water projects fail within the first two years. Why? One of the two main reasons is that they were designed and installed by amateurs. A failed water system is a negative impact for a community because of their investments of time, money and because of their dashed hopes.

Some instant experts start nonprofits and pursue their interests with a zeal. They are enthusiastic about what they are doing—and they are having a good time—but if what they are doing is not working to solve the problem, their pursuits could be summed up as ‘hobby humanitarianism’ or ‘feel-good philanthropy’. We need to look inside, set aside our personal self-interests, and focus on what works if we are going to satisfy those billion hungry people.

A positive solution. If you have a strong need to help a community, have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself to determine if you have the expertise and experience to launch a program. You may be a more valuable contributor to the problem’s solution as a fundraiser rather than by trying to become an implementer. You can easily research on the Internet organizations that work in the country you’re interested in and who have expertise in the solution that you’re interested in. A properly funded project performed by experts is going to have a greater likelihood of having impact then the scenario above.

In this context sustainability means: Will the community continue practicing the solutions that you’ve introduced after you’re gone?

Top-down approaches rarely work. As North Americans we sometimes feel that we have the answers to other people’s problems. But if community members haven’t shown interest in our solutions, or don’t understand our solutions, or find a cultural barrier with our solutions, or don’t have the tools to maintain our solutions, our programs will end shortly after we leave.

A positive solution. CSDi is very community-centered. In our project development courses students begin project design on the first day with the community. If the community voices a specific need or problem, and you include them in determining a solution, they will begin taking on ownership of the concept. If they are included and engaged throughout the project process, there is a much greater likelihood that they will sustain the project long after you’re gone. Our suggestion would be for you to support an NGO that takes a community-centered approach to development if you want to foster sustainability.

Effectiveness. What Works in Development?
Our northern educational system teaches us to be problem solvers. We see a problem in a community and we immediately begin brainstorming solutions. Sometimes our solutions may not be the best thing out there; sometimes they don’t work at all. If one goes into a community to solve the problem of sick little kids, and after three years the children are still sick and tens of thousands of dollars have been spent on a solution that didn’t work—that creates a negative impact.

A positive solution. 1. Meet with experts, support experts. 2. Take a little time is to get on the Internet and research whether your idea has shown evidence of having worked. If you type in your solution idea along with the words “impact analysis” or “randomized control trials” you may find scientific papers written by research teams. These teams may analyze results from 100 or 200 projects in order to determine if different activities show evidence of working to solve problems, and under what conditions. If you find that your idea doesn’t work, try typing into Google “what works in solving XX problem in developing nations” and look for the same kinds of scientific papers there.

Identifying what works first before launching a project can save tens of thousands of dollars, lives, years of work, and promote impact within your partner communities.

Organizational Development. Poorly Managed NGOs.
You can have more money than you need and the best project design out there, but if your nonprofit is faced with organizational challenges you may not be able to successfully implement the project. Executive directors might not be good managers. Staff members within organizations may hold contrary visions of what the organization does. Individual staff members may not have the expertise they need to do their job and may not have access to training.

A positive solution. Hire seasoned, well-trained people. Bring in an outside impartial facilitator to interview staff and then paint an honest picture of where you now are and suggest methods for getting to where you want to go. Let your staff know that training programs are accessible to them. Use a facilitator to lead an organizational vision retreat and begin the process of developing a shared organizational vision.

Impact. Projects Aren’t Designed from the Beginning with Impact in Mind.
For a lot of reasons many projects seem to be pretty shortsighted. They’re output-oriented rather than impact-oriented. Examples of outputs could be the distribution of seeds, or the distribution of school desks, or workshops on hand washing. These are the tangible products of your program. But if they’re not conceived of and organized in the light of long-term impact, they may only do fleeting good.

A positive solution. Reverse engineer the design of your project. Develop a long-term impact statement first and then work backwards from that to determine what outcomes you are going to need to fulfill the impact, what outputs you are going to need to fulfill the outcomes, and what activities will you need to do to produce the outputs. Here’s an example of a simple impact statement:

100 families in the highlands of Guatemala adopt beneficial health and hygiene practices into their lives allowing their children to grow and develop properly, to participate in education, and to become healthy, prosperous, productive members of their community.

Partnering. The Shotgun Approach
So many little NGOs working in Guatemala with little coordination and collaboration; impact suffers from this on a number of different levels.

One is simply the scale of the problem. For example, approximately 3/4 of rural Guatemalan children are malnourished. Having a few scattered projects may help a few scattered children but it isn’t going to address the scale of the problem. Another problem is the distribution of NGOs within communities; sometimes you have several NGOs in one community all doing the same thing. Other times you have gaps of villages where no NGOs are working at all. Sometimes you have NGOs doing a project for which they have little expertise when next door is an NGO with that expertise with whom they could collaborate.

A positive solution. Reach out to other NGOs. Find out who’s doing what and where. Join forces. Make overtures about collaborating, about distributing territory, and about pooling resources. Partner. If you are a small NGO, consider seriously the opportunity of uniting with another small NGO. Think of the savings in resources and management, and the increases in funding opportunities and impact.

From Local Actor to International Professional: International Development Standards
There are so many international resources for NGOs to avail for increasing organizational impact, and yet many NGOs continue to plod along working inefficiently. Many NGOs don’t take the time to look through the Internet or talk to colleagues and see what other organizations are doing to make themselves more professional.

A positive solution. Develop intense curiosity about what international organizations are doing both in their projects and within their organizations. Big organizations frequently have manuals that can be downloaded about organizational strengthening. Manuals are also available for every kind of field activity you can imagine that you might want to include in your programming. A few minutes here and there spent looking at the tremendous amount of research that has been done can have a transformative effect on your organization.

How We Learn: Monitoring and Evaluation
At the halfway point of completing your project how do you know it’s working? When your project is over how do you know it worked? Five years after you leave the project, how will you know it had impact? So many projects reach their end point showing very little result except for a list of outputs required by the donor.

A positive solution. A monitoring and evaluation plan, once professionally developed, can be used over and over again within new projects with simple editing. You might want to try and develop a very simple plan for a project just to become accustomed to using one.

Monitoring and evaluation plans play a number of important roles. During the course of a project they can help you identify an activity that isn’t working—but with a simple tweak—could work just fine. At the end of a project, they will let you know whether you had positive results; this information is invaluable in the process of designing new projects. Being able to show documented results of your hard work to donors can increase your credibility with them and therefore levels of funding. Also very important, is the fact that a monitoring and evaluation plan can confront us with the activities that we fiercely believe in—but that don’t work; believing in activities that don’t work does not lead to long-term impact. So take a course, download an online manual, or hire a short-term consultant, but get your first monitoring evaluation plan into a project today.

To begin to solve this problem of a lack of impact, I think will need to each ask ourselves if we:
 have the expertise that we need for a project
 have chosen an appropriate role for ourselves in the project which will have the greatest positive impact
 have designed the project with impact in mind
 are using activities that will actually work to solve the problem
 have empowered the community to support the project after we leave
 are well organized and professional
 are partnering in order to do the most good
 are tracking our results

The time to address these issues is now. The world is becoming more crowded. Weather patterns have become more unpredictable. There seems to be less water: Over 60% of the projects that our online students are developing relate to either a shortage of food or shortage of water.

A billion hungry people are depending on us to begin working efficiently and effectively and with projects designed and managed for impact. There are many resources available on the Internet. Consider taking one of our online courses that address these issues, or consider utilizing our services for organizational development.

One thing that’s very helpful to me is that people coming into Guatemala on the way to visit their projects will frequently meet with me in Guatemala City. Every one of these meetings gives me greater insights into the world of development—and I make new friends as well! So please consider dropping by the next time you’re in town.

Until next month.

Tim Magee


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