Tag Archives: ngo

Pounding the pavement: DevQuest-ing your way into a development career

By Giles Dickenson-Jones

What I’d probably classify as my international development origin story was a short-term research project with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Essentially, during the year, the ADB advertises research and work they need done, which you (and hundreds of others) apply to do as part of their internship program.

In my case, I applied to help them develop a model to predict which roads would be impacted by climate change, so they could target where to do more detailed analysis or invest in climate proofing. And as comparatively boring as this origin story might sound, it crucially altered the way I viewed working in international development.

For one, I realised the development community is full of high achievers. People at the ADB were clever, good-looking and fluent in multiple languages. International development seemed to be as competitive as I’d been told.

But I also quickly realized that most people there were extremely approachable and happy to help. In fact, people came to speak to me, probably both because of how undeniably interesting road engineering is and because they guessed I had questions about building a career in international development.

And while this is partly a testament to the ADB placing a high value on their interns, I think it was also because many professionals there had, at one point, asked the same questions:

  • “Should I apply to an international organisation through the young professionals program?”
  • “Is it more important to network, or to apply to jobs through formal channels?”
  • “Is a Masters degree enough, or do I need a PhD?”
  • “How important is field experience? Where do I start?”
  • “Why do people love karaoke so much here?”

Some people thought that to be a professional economist, a PhD was a minimum. Others suggested accruing a good chunk of experience outside international organisations was the way to go, as it provided a wider view of the development sector. By and large, field experience was recommended – not for the purposes of “slumming it,” but to ensure you receive an adequate dose of humility through being exposed to the day-to-day challenges faced in communities being “developed.”

On the other hand, advice on how to acquire this experience varied, with some people working it into their PhD research, some undertaking internships in the field and others having studied overseas.

"One does not simply...get field experience." Meme by WhyDev.
“One does not simply…get field experience.” Meme by WhyDev.

Not only that, but the advice was (as one would expect) extremely different depending on people’s specific sector, as well as both where and when they started their career. International development seemed to be a field involving an intricate web of vertical and horizontal links between organisations, specialisations and regions.

After attending enough lunch events to give me a pronounced “networking belly,” a key theme, it seemed, was that there is no set path to getting your foot in the door. While persistence, international experience and a specialisation in a useful field will help, don’t expect the combination to necessarily result in an interview. In fact, whether you’re even considered might depend on where you fit with nationality quotas, whether other high-performers have come from your university and whether you’ve worked in-country before.

And this is what can make development seem like the career equivalent of getting a backstage pass – if you don’t fit the club’s demographic, you’d better know the bouncer.

While I’ll never be the kind of person who looks like he belongs backstage, I do realize how valuable my experience was in providing some clarity about where I might fit in the sector. But two years later, as I came to the end of my post-graduate studies in development, I also realised I’d been lucky. I had the right skills at the right time, and the right person in ADB’s human resources department had seen my application.

But not everyone gets a backstage pass. In fact, few do. Perhaps as a result of this, many people I was studying with seemed to be afflicted by professional paralysis. These feelings made a world of waning development funding all the more intimidating and uncertain, particularly when many had no idea where their skills might fit into the development sector.

And perhaps this was the most difficult thing for people I spoke with. How does a person make an informed choice about the value of doing an internship, earning a degree or even pursuing a career in development, without having a mentor to learn from or a sounding board to bounce ideas off?

Should I seek a role in the field or target an organisation that has offices in regions I’m interested in working in? Should I self-fund an internship in a United Nations field office or with an NGO, or am I better to target private consultancies?

And whilst analogous problems are faced in any field, the non-linear nature of development careers makes it that much harder, especially with there being relatively limited pieces of good advice from seasoned professionals.

Not only that, there isn’t a standard recipe for pursuing a career in development, meaning the “one size fits all” advice provided by many Human Resources departments and Career Services offices isn’t always helpful. Following their advice, newcomers risk forcing themselves into a cookie-cutter mould of selection criteria, pursuing a role they might not be passionate about or simply trying to accrue qualifications or experiences that in fact place them no closer to securing their first position.

And this is the first reason we started DevQuest: as a simple avenue for newcomers to learn from their peers, hopefully making those initial steps a little less daunting. But there is another reason we thought the idea was long-overdue: despite a trend towards unpaid internships and young professionals programs, there is nowhere a person can read reviews of development entry points. Unless you know somebody who has gone before you, it’s hard to know what to expect when taking those first steps in your development career.

After all, how can someone tell the difference between an entry-level position where they’ll be forced to restock printers and one where they’ll get the opportunity to use their experience and even learn some new skills?

And whilst some Human Resource departments suggest interns and young professionals should be honoured to have even been selected, we think that every hour someone with a PhD spends getting coffee is an hour lost for an organisation that needs their skills.

We also believe personal stories can provide a powerful way to help newcomers cross that first bridge into development, by providing clarity about what’s out there – and assurance that they’re not the first person to have put in twenty applications without receiving a single reply.

Giles Dickenson-Jones is a Coordinator at DevQuest. Currently, he is an economist working in Myanmar, where he is responsible for developing and advising on economic policy. Before this, he worked in a range of roles for NGOs, government and the private sector. Giles holds a Masters degree in Development from the University of Sydney and an Honours degree in Economics from the University of New England. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image shows a silhouette of a businessman running up steps. Photo from Pixabay.

How only small NGOs can address unmet needs

Whether it is Daniel-san in Karate Kid, the Jamaican Bobsled team or Mel Gibson in a kilt, people love to support the underdog. Here’s a feel good story with a simple lesson – in international development, we should often do much of the same.

In Cambodia, it is estimated over 600,000 people with disabilities lack access to basic Speech Therapy services. These are people who have disabilities related to communication and swallowing. They may have had a stroke and cannot swallow food independently. They may have been born with cleft palate, and require surgery and therapy to eat and communicate. They may have Autism Spectrum Disorder, and require communication strategies to interact with their family, friends and community.

Despite this great need, there is a huge lack of services that exist for this population. There is a multitude of reasons for this, but this lack of services can be explained through this (grossly oversimplified) diagram.


At the top of the diagram, there is no explicit mention of disability in the Millennium Development Goals, nor does the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities mention Speech Therapy services, or the needs of people with communication and swallowing disabilities.

When conventions, laws and policies are not inclusive, this creates the same problems in funding. This affects programs, which in turn affects services. As a result, although no disability organisations in Cambodia could claim to be flush with funding, some of the best funded focus on hearing and visual impairments.

One organization, however, was unable to ignore the needs of 600,000 people needing Speech Therapy services in Cambodia.

CABDICO, a small organisation with 11 Cambodian staff and an annual budget smaller than many UN salaries, went searching for funds to support a program that helped initiate sustainable in-country Speech Therapy services and education.*

Despite the huge need, almost a year of searching provided fruitless. The most common response was “I can see that you’ve raised something very important (for over 600,000 people), yet this area of disability is not our focus and we cannot help.”

When needs are unrecognised at the international level, but felt at the local level, what could CABDICO do?

Larger NGOs often pursue funds that are in the order of millions of dollars. These funds exist because they are in internationally recognised areas of need – education, HIV/AIDs, maternal health, for example. Yet, smaller NGOs like CABDICO, pursuing funds that were closer to $30,000, face tremendous challenges in finding resources.

The little guy often displays more flexibility, which can be beneficial as demonstrated in this photo.

How do most NGOs respond when then cannot find funding? A good example can be seen through a large and relatively well-funded disability organisation in Cambodia, who, like CADBICO, also recognised the need for Speech Therapy a few years ago. However, due primarily to lack of motivation from funding bodies, they were unable to take steps towards addressing it. Concurrently, they started to develop programs in mother and child health. Why? Due to the availability of funds this area, as a focus of the Millenium Development Goals.

I am by no means suggesting that a focus in mother and child health is unwarranted, nor that this NGO’s work in this area is ineffective. However, the choice this organisation made to pursue available funding affected its ability to be flexible and responsive to the population it serves.

CABDICO, on the other hand, decided to start a funding campaign through the online platform StartSomeGood to offer community-based Speech Therapy services. With these funds, and later, having successfully secured funds through the Australian Embassy, CABDICO began to take steps to address this huge problem.

The first task was to gather everyone who had been doing bits and pieces of Speech Therapy, and those who should know about it, together in the one room. As simple as this sounds, CABDICO had never organised a workshop on a large scale before. It was a daunting task, yet with their can-do attitude, something that they embraced. They partnered with a government coordination body, the Disability Action Council, to help  get access to people from Ministries of Health, Education, Social Affairs and Labor, whom they would otherwise have difficulty reaching.

As a result, for the first time ever in Cambodia, people, international and national, governmental and non-governmental, came together to discuss the future of Speech Therapy in Cambodia.

2013-12-16 10.04.57
Secretary General of the Disability Action Council, HE Em Chan Makara, speaking about Speech Therapy on national news. Unprecedented.

Working groups were set up to address the problem. Buy in from government, so crucial towards success, has begun. Speech Therapy was explicitly mentioned in the strategic plan of the Disability Action Council, but as importantly, in the National Strategic Disability Plan. A Cambodian university that teaches Medicine, Nursing and other Allied Health disciplines has agreed to initiate a Speech Therapy course.

Although there is so much more to be done, the change that has already occurred has happened at breakneck speed, and CADBICO has shown that things can happen like this:


Identifying an unmet need requires going to one place, listening and observing. Anybody can do that. But, often, only small organisations have the agility and capability to do something about what they hear.

In this underdog story, ordinary people generously helped to create change, because those in positions of power wouldn’t. CADBICO’s efforts, and those of countless other effective, small NGOs demonstrates that it doesn’t take millions of dollars to create change, just the belief of the little guy to dare think that things can change for the better.


Addendum: There is still a long, long way to go in this journey. If you would be interested in supporting, in any way, please contact CABDICO.

*I have worked as an external advisor to CABDICO since July 2012.

The Capacity Building Game

By Makarand Sahasrabuddhe

A few years ago I was travelling in India with a man working with a grassroots NGO. He was going from one workshop to another. This is the dialogue we had:

Me: What is your role?
He: I am the learning officer in (name of NGO).
Me: Yes but what do you do?
He: I participate in all workshops that (name of NGO) gets invited to.
Me: but surely you must be specialising in an area?
He: No. You see I am a graduate and I know a lot. Over the last six months I have been to gender, human rights, Non-formal-education, M&E and Reproductive rights trainings. Most of these were organised by donors who make grants to (name of NGO). Very often project people cannot go since they have implementation deadlines and so I go.
Me: (still not taking this one seriously) Hmm but what happens when you have 2-3 workshops in a row? Don’t you get the subjects muddled up by the time you get back to your office?
He: No no. It cannot happen. I have different notebooks for different workshops.
Me: speechless till today

So why am I breaking my silence today?

Well over the last two weeks I have been hearing the term ‘capacity building’ over and over. The height was the long Skype chat I just finished with an NGO I had been associated with in India. They were brainstorming with me on some capacity building venture they were planning. I found that they were clueless on why they wanted to build capacities, what would be achieved – all they knew was that they had a grant to build capacities of youth. I was appalled and felt that I had to get this out of my system before a new week began.

This is of course not a stray case. Most development workers, myself included, often get irresistible urges to build capacities of others.

  • Managers want to build capacities of staff.
  • Staff want to build capacities of partners.
  • Partners want to build capacities of communities.
  • and consultants and trainers (oops facilitators) laugh all the way to the bank.

I am surprised that with all the capacity building that has been going on for decades, we still have someone whose capacities need to be built left in the world. Many a time capacity building is just a euphemism for cramming 30 people in a room for a few days and trying to kill them with power-points and flipcharts and group work (that also takes care of the ‘participation’).  

Does one get to see improved social capital or skills then?

Well. Not really. Otherwise why would NGOs who have gone through at least 10 different capacity building exercises on Monitoring and Evaluation be completely unable to develop a simple framework that can tell anyone who wants to know if their work is making a difference? (true story)

I think that the biggest reason why capacity building does not work is because it is often in an area that the capacity builders are interested in. The buildees(not a word I love but just a play on the mentor : mentee that I keep hearing) could not care too much.

I am reminded of Sir Humphrey Appleby saying:

“Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want! If they want it, they will pay for it. It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!”

Just replace ‘subsidy’ with ‘capacities’.

A few other reasons why capacity building does not work are:

  • Boring methods
  • Condescending and / or contextually clueless facilitators
  • Poor design, often top down
  • Participants unable to relate subject to their work
  • Mismatched incentives of builders and buildees

Finally, I think that any capacity building must be followed by letting go. If you want to build capacities of communities to decide for themselves and take action, you cannot insist that they take action in an area that you are interested in. It is for the community to decide what to do and how. The art of letting go and losing control is not one that most of us development workers have any mastery over.

I am not saying that all capacity building is useless. However, I would like to see these efforts being made in a bit more strategic manner. IMO capacity building should include:

  • Setting objectives jointly – understanding the areas where capacities are to be built and how the builders and buildees see it.
  • Understanding the incentives of both groups – hopefully there is sufficient overlap.
  • Understanding what it means when capacities are built – how will it look like, what will be the change, how will one know that change has happened.
  • Determining the processes that will aid in capacity building – obviously training can be one of them but is not the only one for sure. You have exposure, learning while doing, mentoring etc
  • Ensuring that the buildee has the opportunity to practice what (s)he learnt, make mistakes and have help in getting them corrected.


Makarand Sahasrabuddhe is a development practitioner and who has been working in the field for over 17 years.  He have traveled and worked extensively across South Asia. He had the opportunity of working for a short time in the South Caucuses region.  He is presently working with Oxfam GB in the Horn, East and Central Africa Regional Centre, based out of Nairobi. His views expressed are his alone and may not represent the views of the organisation that he is working with. This is a crosspost with his own blog here.


Why competing over funding is killing development (and how we might improve)

“You’d be surprised at how unfriendly this industry can be,” Amie* confessed. “When I first worked here (at an international NGO in Melbourne), nobody wanted to help me with anything.”

Over dinner, an employee of a high profile international NGO described the unhelpful culture in her workplace. People are often surprised to hear that a sector such as development, which should theoretically value empathy and sharing, can be so competitive. Why is there so much competitiveness in development? Whether it’s jobs, resources or attention, it seems everyone’s competing against each other. In the end, it stifles collaboration.

This attitude of competition is no more prevalent than in the sphere of fundraising. At whydev.org, we’ve recently been raising funds for a project of our own. We’ve been trying to raise seed funding to build an international support network for aid workers. Our research shows that there are aid workers all around the world, who are often in isolated and trying conditions, and often feel unsupported by their home office or organisation. We believe that if we are able to connect them up, then we can give them the opportunity to support each other, through peer coaching.

Our idea is inherently about collaboration and sharing, and in some ways flies in the face of the attitude that Amie described. Yet, in raising money for this very idea, I managed to get a firsthand glimpse into the realities of fundraising that others must experience daily. With private donations, as with applications for tenders and grants, there is an inherent element of competition involved. People will compare your project to others, decide the relative worth of each, and then make a decision about where their $20 will go. Undoubtedly, healthy competition should be welcomed.

However, what I realised was that this view sees fundraising of private donations as a zero-sum game. This perspective states that there is a certain amount of money available, and each project or NGO must compete for it. However, seeing fundraising in this way may be seeing it a little too narrowly.

Peter Singer’s influential book, the Life You Can Save, describes how almost every person who is living a life of comfort can give more of his or her wealth away. In his example, the end result of sacrificing a little bit of comfort is saving lives. His website contains testimonials of people who have embraced this idea, such as the lady who was in a buying scheme where every month a new pair of shoes were delivered to her. She opted out of this scheme and instead gave all the money she would have spent on shoes towards worthwhile causes.

The bottom line is that pretty much all of us can afford to give just that little bit more. There isn’t a limited and static pool of private donations that NGOs need to fight tooth and nail over. We instead should encourage people to increase the amount of money that they’re willing to give. Taking this tact requires collaboration from NGOs, not competitiveness, so that everyone can achieve their targets.

How do you encourage people to simply give more?

One way could be by fostering a culture of giving. For too long, NGOs have focused on fundraising for specific projects as the need arises. We’ve already discussed why this is problematic when fundraising for specific disasters.

Singer argues that when you donate to a specific cause, you should be as loud about it as possible. You should be telling all your friends about your donation, whether it is through social media or otherwise. Although this may not come naturally to some, Singer says that this means other people will also be encouraged to give, and therefore, giving becomes increasingly normal. In other words, by telling others about your own generosity, you also encourage a culture of giving.

Perhaps NGOs could foster this by donating to other NGOs themselves. Although problems emerge if World Vision Australia donates funds raised under a certain pretence to MSF, what if prominent employees of World Vision came out publicly and donated to other NGOs?

Imagine for a second if Reverend Tim Costello, the CEO of World Vision Australia, publicly stated that he was supporting MSF because he believed in what they were doing and trusted them to use his donation well. As counterintuitive as this scenario seems, imagine how powerful a message it would send.

The message would be one of true support and solidarity; that it is okay to give to a cause that is not your own. Most importantly, the general public might look at such an action and be encouraged to give more.

The danger of thinking about fundraising purely for your own cause is that it is possible to lose focus on the whole notion of giving in the broader sense. Suddenly, raising funds becomes a competition with other fundraisers and the notion of collaboration disappears. But this view of fundraising doesn’t acknowledge that an untapped pool of funds may be currently ignored, by not encouraging people to give more. If we focused our energy on fostering a culture of giving, NGOs may be able to collaborate to increase their funding for all, not only for one.

What other ways do you think we can foster a culture of giving? Are there examples of NGOs already focusing on this that you can think of?


*not her real name

Is anything going right in NGO-INGO relations?

By Nora Lester Murad and Renee Black.

Nora Lester Murad of Dalia Association:

Something is definitely wrong in NGO-INGO relations. Tension keeps popping up at global meetings and in social media exchanges. Some of it, I think, is the same power struggle as that between locals and donors (e.g., who decides how resources are used, who decides what “success” means, etc.), but there’s another aspect that’s about who “we” are as civil society, and how we manage power and privilege within “our” family. From my experience in Palestine, the disconnect is getting wider. Too often, internationals focus on projects and outputs that make sense in their organisational and funding context, but fail to take responsibility for their collective impact on local civil society – we are getting weaker and less sustainable as a result of international “aid.”

I find myself thinking about these issues all the time. I talk to colleagues around the world. I raise these issues whenever I write or speak at meetings. And the response I get is very challenging.

People say: “We understand your criticisms, but what do you suggest we do differently?”

In other words, knowing what’s wrong in NGO-INGO relations isn’t enough. We need to know how to do it better. But sadly, while I’ve had many bad and neutral experiences, I haven’t had many good ones. That’s why I’m happy to share my recent experience with PeaceGeeks, a Canadian NGO that is helping Dalia Association, a Palestinian NGO, to run an online competition.

What is PeaceGeeks doing right?

1- They called us.

PeaceGeeks contacted Dalia Association, first by email and then by Skype. As the English-speaking volunteer, I was asked to respond (we had never heard of them). Because we didn’t initiate a request for money, the dynamics lacked that sense we often feel of begging, trying to impress, of being evaluated.

2-They show respect for our leadership.

Having already read Dalia’s website, PeaceGeeks asked questions about our organisation and the context we work in. They were in learning mode; we were the experts. They also shared honestly about their organisation and their previous work. This left me feeling like there was a chance to create something together rather than being forced to take or leave a pre-packaged project on someone else’s terms.

3-They bring expertise we don’t have and at a high level.

PeaceGeeks is a collective of technical volunteers. They have expertise we don’t have. That feels very different than working with an INGO that only has money to offer.

4-They respect our timeline and limitations.

We have not been able to move as fast as PeaceGeeks. They are a huge team ready to implement ideas right away. Dalia is a small, grassroots NGO that doesn’t even have sufficient English capacity. So far, PeaceGeeks has been flexible and willing to move more slowly, making the effort to bring Arabic speakers onto their team, and understanding of our need for collective decision-making processes.

5-They are creative and responsive.

When we had difficulty coming up with the name for our philanthropy competition, they offered to incorporate a brainstorming activity into a volunteer recruitment event they were holding in Canada. Then they did extra outreach to recruit Canadian-Palestinians to participate as volunteers.

6-They act like partners.

At all steps in the process, they have shared with us what is happening on their end. For example, they explained how their board decides which projects to take on, and what kind of scrutiny we’d be subjected to. They also copy us on notes to their team so we are in the loop.

Our project—a competition to recognise Palestinian philanthropy around the world—is just starting, and there are much more work to do with PeaceGeeks around the technological interface, social media, and design. It’s a lot, and we might not be able to pull it off without help. So how do I feel so far having PeaceGeeks on our side? Hopeful.

Renee Black of PeaceGeeks:

PeaceGeeks began working with Dalia after a great chat where we could see both a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish, and a clear role we could play a role in helping them to achieve it. Dalia is tackling a complex set of intertwined systematic issues. In the short term, they aim to challenge the perception that Palestinians are takers and not givers. The long-term objective is to engage more Palestinians in philanthropy and on questions on the effective use local resources to address local issues, towards reducing dependency on international aid and strengthening local accountability.

Breaking this unsustainable and disempowering pattern is no simple task. Dalia has chosen to begin addressing this problem through a contest that asks Palestinian youth to identify examples of Palestinian philanthropy in its various forms, whether it be sharing money, time, resources, talents and networks. They want a culture among youth who see that they have a role to play in addressing issues that affect their communities.

After meeting with Dalia, we identified three key areas where we could help make this contest possible. First, they needed a web developer to help create the website pages for the contest on their website and to train their web team in Jordan in how to replicate and manage these pages. Second, they needed a campaign name, brand and logo to help communicate the contest to stakeholders. Third, they needed help in building the capacities of their staff to make effective of use social media and blogging tools to spread the word about the contest to youth and solicit submissions. And all of this needed to happen in a very short time frame because of cutoff from one of their donors.

At first, we weren’t sure if we would be able to help because of the short turn-around time, but the project quickly piqued the interest of our volunteers, and within three days, we recruited web developer Scott Nelson, Arabic-speaking graphic designer Neeveen Bhadur and social media expert Carey Sessoms. We are now recruiting an experienced Arabic-speaking blogger to help Dalia to understand how blogging can help with their work. Along the way, we have been talking to Dalia about their evolving situation and making sure that the help that we are providing is timely and relevant.

We see our role as enablers of change. We can’t lead initiatives to address issues affecting people in other places. But what we do is help organisations like Dalia to get the tools and capacities they need to execute projects, better manage their resources or reach and engage their constituents effectively so they can solve local issues. And in the process, our volunteers get an incredible opportunity to both learn about how communities around the world are solving local problems and playing a role in helping them do it.

Check back for a follow up post in three months or so as we look back honestly about what worked and what didn’t. Meanwhile…

What are your experiences with local NGO-INGO relations?


Nora Lester Murad, PhD, is a writer and activist in Jerusalem, Palestine. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine” at www.noralestermurad.com covers issues of aid, development and life under Israeli military occupation. She is a dedicated volunteer with Dalia Association (www.dalia.ps), the first Palestinian community foundation, where she works on aid reform, philanthropy promotion, and civil society accountability.

Renee Black is a Canadian entrepreneur who founded PeaceGeeks (http://peacegeeks.org/) in 2011. She previously worked as a technology analyst in the private sector and as a policy analyst on peace and security issues, including for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders and for UN Women where she worked on the role of women peacebuilders. PeaceGeeks is a Canadian non-profit organization that works to build the technology, communications and management capacities of other non-profit organizations working on promotion of peace, accountability and human rights. We do this by building teams of remote volunteers who support project partners so they can have a greater impact in their communities.  


Is your program ready to scale?

By Sophie Walker

Every year, donors fund hundreds of pilot projects in developing countries. While many of those projects produce results, most of them die a quiet death in one or two villages without ever expanding, replicating or exporting their positive impact. And the next year, funders and nonprofits set about re-inventing the wheel in villages in low-income countries yet again.

Why have we embraced this endless cycle of re-invention and duplication, resulting in millions of wasted dollars? As one development expert I recently interviewed put it: Funders will continue to support new pilot projects as long as they continue to believe there is a silver bullet out there.

Of course, there is no silver bullet to solving the world’s biggest problems. But there are plenty of solutions that are “good enough” and merit adequate funding to go to scale. These are programs and policies that, while not cure-alls, can improve people’s lives.

But now the six-million-dollar question is: How do we know which programs are ready for scale? That’s the question my firm, Mission Measurement, has been researching over the past year in pursuit of a practical answer—a set of simple metrics that can tell stakeholders whether a program is, or isn’t, ready for scaling.

In scouring the existing body of literature we found that no such rubric existed. The bulk of work in this space primarily consists of case studies explaining how specific projects successfully went to and (occasionally) failed to scale. Some researchers provide frameworks or methodologies for developing and executing a plan for scaling up.

These are all useful tools for managers, but what about external stakeholders? How do funders or partners or communities determine which projects should be scaled? How can we know if organizations are successfully implementing a scaling up plan? To test this idea my team has been interviewing practitioners, theorists, consultants, and academics in the field.

Among other factors that will be incorporated into an upcoming tool, there are three leading indicators that have come up again and again in our research: cost; incentive mapping; and monitoring and evaluation.

Developing a Realistic Cost Model: Extensive financial analyses and projections of unit costs are rarely conducted adequately. This is a crucial early step in determining whether a project is viably scalable. While pilot project funding might allow for a costly and complex project implementation, this type of investment will not be replicable on a larger scale. If unit costs exceed any reasonable government or consumer budget, or are not competitive with the next best alternative available, the project will likely stall no matter its demonstrated success. In order to mitigate this risk, a cost structure that is realistic with the financial resources of target beneficiaries or funders is necessary.

Incentive Mapping to Ensure Alignment: Analysing the incentives of all stakeholders – beneficiaries, funders, implementers – and ensuring that there is significant alignment among them, is a crucial indicator of scalability. Do the incentives exist for change to happen on a large scale? For a market-based solution, this means that the product design incentivises consumers to spend income on the product, rather than other goods, to improve their lives. In government-based systems, it means that the incentives exist for ecosystems to change well-entrenched bureaucratic practices. Leveraging existing systems to the greatest extent possible as well as well-aligned stakeholder incentives are good indications that a project will have better chances of overcoming the status quo and scaling.

Creating a Feedback Loop: Since this is Mission Measurement’s strong suit, we are happy to report that the ability to continually test, monitor, evaluate, and refine project attributes contributes to successful scaling up. In addition, promoting successful demonstration projects based on compelling evidence increases the potential to drive a project’s uptake. Products and service delivery need to be able to adapt to ever-changing conditions often in vastly varying regions and cultures.

We hope our tool will be an important addition to the scaling up field that will allow program managers to better focus their time and energy towards activities that contribute to scale. Similarly, it should allow external parties to better understand which pilots are on a pathway to scale. But, much like development projects, this will not be a silver bullet, but will offer a new and pragmatic perspective on an ongoing challenge in the development sphere.


Sophie Walker is an Associate at Mission Measurement, a firm that helps its clients to create value through social change. She regularly advises government, nonprofit and academic leaders on strategies for promoting international development. Follow her on Twitter: @MissionMeasure.


So what if 90% of money donated goes to the program?

Barnardo’s UK makes an active point of describing how low their overheads are.

Whether it’s spending money on groceries, mobile phones or charities, we all want bang for our buck. Telling the public that a large percentage of their donations goes to the program is an easy way for an NGO to look like they’re doing the right thing. However, in 2009, a joint press release from 8 charity-watchdog organisations stated that in trying to determine whether a charity is worth supporting, focusing on a low overhead ratio is meaningless. So why do so many NGO’s still talk about it when communicating to the public?

My guess is that it comes down to the perennial struggle between doing good development work and raising funds to support that work. Often, the former is a lot more complicated than the latter. And unfortunately, when it comes to conveying that information to the public from a quick glance at a website, or a short grab on TV, the complexities of it all often get lost.

The myth that organisations with low overheads are ones worth supporting has been actively propagated by the marketing departments of many large NGOs. Well, now there is a 20 page resource that well and truly blows this myth out of the water. Over at Good Intentions are Not Enough, Saundra Schimmelpfennig has written an excellent little eBook that will not only take just 10 to 20 minutes to read, but details exactly why stating that an organisation has low overheads is bad publicity, and also bad practice.

Possibly the easiest way to dispel this myth is by using the example that she does in her opening paragraphs. Imagine walking into a fast food chain and insisting that you will only pay for whatever costs make up the hamburger. You will only pay them a few cents for the cost of the bun, the hamburger patty, the tomato sauce and the pickles. What kind of a product do you think they would be able to produce then? Would such a business survive?

Similarly, NGOs need to be able to spend money on a variety of things if they are going to be viable organisations. They need to pay for qualified and professional staff, offices, office supplies, communications, innovation and yes, even marketing to get more funds.

Saundra goes on to tell us that not only are overheads necessary, but an organisation that claims that it has low overheads is likely to be doing this in a rather devious way – by simply fiddling with its accounting practices. An excellent and rather topical example of this is through the use of “Gifts In Kind”, where organisations take donated items such as clothing and pass them onto the recipients in their programs. As Saundra quite rightly points out, this is an example of the “tail wagging the dog”, where a type of program is chosen simply because the overheads are low, and not because it is actually needed or helpful.

As discussion continues around World Vision USA’s continued insistence on sending unwanted NFL T-shirts to African nations, Saundra states that “the mass donation of clothing has contributed to the destruction of local garment industries and high rates of unemployment”. Here is one pressing statistic that shows how destructive this practice is:

Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981-2000.

If, as Saundra states, the need to keep overheads low is pushing organisations such as World Vision USA to do bad development work, then the priority for those who care about good development is clear. We must actively dispel the myth of low overheads as an indicator of good development work. Once this irrelevant pressure is removed, we can instead start focusing on doing good development work.

So, what can donors and NGOs do to further dispel this myth? Here, at whydev, we love action points, so here we go again:

1) Download and read “Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices: Why nonprofit overhead doesn’t mean what you think it means” by Saundra Schimmelpfennig. Saundra has even made the price of the eBook determinable by the reader – which means you can pay nothing for it if you like (though I strongly suggest you throw even a few dollars in to compensate her for her time).

2) Get informed about which NGOs propagate this myth. This can be as easy as Googling key words such as “percent of money donated oxfam”, and then simply replacing “oxfam” with the name of another NGO. As a general rule, if an NGO is actively promoting a high percentage of money donated going to the program, you need to be sceptical about whether or not they are worth supporting. There are also a whole host of initiatives that Saundra mentions in her eBook, that aim to improve transparency, and bodies that you can complain to about NGOs that are creating this false standard.

3) Work to inform people about how meaningless this indicator is. Using low overheads as an indicator of good development work is tempting, but misinformed. This probably means that through a simple example, such as the fast food joint, we can get people thinking about how meaningless it really is. Whether it’s a dinner time conversation, or an aid forum, there is always an appropriate time to dispel such a harmful myth.

4) Instead of propagating a myth that is easy to market, NGOs should spend energy educating the public on what good development is. This sounds so ridiculously obvious when it is spelt out, but it’s often ignored rather than heeded. It’s far too tempting when people ask about percentages and overheads to simply answer with a number that they are expecting to hear. However, this only makes programs that are more meaningful increasingly difficult to run in the future, for fear of increasing overheads. In communicating with the public, NGOs shouldn’t use figures such as “for every $1 donated, $0.85 of your donated dollar goes directly to field programs that serve beneficiaries on the ground,” as has been done here.

In a class called “Ethics in Physiotherapy”, I recall learning about an old hypothetical that is highly relevant here. A patient comes to see you with chronic back pain that has lasted more than 2 years. You know that massage and other hands-on treatments are unlikely to do anything to fix this person’s problems, but rather, you need to start them on a combination of education and exercise. However, since the person has been told before that massage will fix it, they are insistent that you try that method on them. There’s also this old problem of the placebo effect – that if you do perform massage, their symptoms may be alleviated because their mind is so set on this being the correct treatment. Do you give them what they want, because you know that it may relieve them of symptoms, and therefore set up good return business? Or, do you spend the time educating them on which treatment actually has scientific evidence for solving their underlying problems?

Similarly, do NGO’s keep propagating this myth about low overheads, simply because that is now what the public wants to hear? Or do we spend our marketing dollars dispelling this myth once and for all?


You can download a copy of Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s eBook Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices via her site Good Intentions are Not Enough here.

You can follow this author on Twitter here.

The realities of working in development and how we might help

Recently, I learnt something about myself that I had never known. I truly have a face made for radio. Last week, I was featured on Sydney’s 2SER Radio Station, as part of their Aidworks program. This program runs every Wednesday night at 7pm (AEDT) and can be found at 107.3FM locally or streamed live here. Aidworks discusses the finer points of aid and development in a way that mainstream media doesn’t. We’re really proud to support Aidworks and 2SER in any way that we can.

On the program, I discussed the realities of working in development in China, the limitations of a rights-based approach, working in isolation and how whydev.org‘s new peer coach matching scheme, set up to support isolated aid and development workers across the globe, could help. The interview, which lasts about ten minutes, can be found below. If the audio below isn’t working, you can listen to it here.

Big thanks to Aidworks’ host, Albion Harrison-Naish!


[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/38191348″ iframe=”true” /]

Are you psychologically equipped for working in aid and development?

White Paper Series by Alessandra Pigni

“The idea that psychological well-being is a luxury is right at the root of the problem. The mental health of field staff is every bit as important as their physical health. Proper preparation for the psychological stresses of field life should be taken as seriously as pre-mission medical assessments and associated measures to prevent/treat illness in the field.”

(Robyn Kerrison – human rights/protection advisor, currently working in Haiti) 

Over the last months I have been collecting stories, reflections and suggestions from humanitarian professionals on the importance of staff-care, pre-deployment psychological preparation, burnout prevention training, field support, coaching and mentoring and post-deployment care. HQ and field-staff have lent their voice to this white paper series, which provides an analysis of the needs in the field, as well as the types of interventions that could be of help, including mindfulness training.

Encouraged by my dear friend Jennifer Lentfer at how-matters.org the first chapter of the White Paper Series on the psychological health of the precious people who work in aid is now out! It provides the background and purpose of the whole series. I have chosen to release the twelve papers over several weeks, in order to give readers the time and space to process the material and reflect upon it.

Below is an overview of the series:

  1. Provides the background and purpose of the white paper series.
  2. Offers an overview of the issues in psychological health faced by aid workers before, during, and after field deployment.
  3. Gives an overview of the concepts of mindfulness and how they may apply to aid work.
  4. Focuses on the recruitment and hiring processes of aid workers.
  5. Focuses on the pre-deployment phase, and the type of psychological preparation required.
  6. Focuses on the importance of personal awareness in the field.
  7. Explores the role of teams and team conflicts in staffʼs psychological well-being.
  8. Examines the organisational culture that permeates humanitarian agencies.
  9. Focuses on burnout and reaching ʻa breaking pointʼ.
  10. Examines practices that support aid workers while in the field.
  11. Provides an open conclusion with recommendations for action.
  12. Offers a list of useful resources on staff care, psychological support and mindfulness-based interventions.

In each of the papers, the voices of aid workers in the field are included (always in italics), along with their personal stories. They discuss the staff-care needs that arise during a mission, often describing the predominantly tough “humanitarian culture” that permeates agencies. But these papers do not only collect, describe and analyse the evidence offered by frontline professionals and volunteers. Each paper also provides conclusions and suggested interventions: action points, priorities and policy changes, highlighting how the lack of training and staff-care in humanitarian programmes can turn into an occupational hazard for employees and their agencies.

In particular, the concepts and practices of mindfulness are introduced in their relevance to the problems that may arise in the field, highlighting the significant difference that they can make to standard NGO training, procedures and management. Recommendations for developing psychological awareness, better staff retention, care and support before, during and after the mission, as well as a list of useful resources can also be found in a separate section of the white paper series.

Donors and HQ staff may be particularly interested in following this white paper series. Frontline professionals who know all about burnout, stress, trauma, loneliness, isolation and depression in the field, and the urgent need of doing something about it, may recognise their voices in it. I am convinced that “changing the world starts from within”, and that successful projects on the ground derive not only from professionally competent, but also psychologically healthy staff. How we feel within ourselves has an impact on how we engage with the world. This is no small matter.

Much is to be discussed, changed and improved in our aid community around staff-care. Starting from ourselves I feel is a good place of enquiry. Feedback and comments are most welcome, and so is your participation in the Frontline Burnout Prevention Group on LinkedIn.

To download the first paper of the series please click below (the bibliography is available for download as well so you can refer back to the various sources)

#1 – Background and purpose of the white paper series.

Bibliography – A List of Useful Resources

The remainder of the series will be updated section by section and downloadable from Mindfulness for NGOs.


This is a reposting of an original post on Mindfulness for NGOs.


The limits of planning

By Sarah Grant*

“Every complexity, we are told, is the process of evolution. Yet our development planners seem to think that they can do better…that they can create complex things at one throw by a process called planning.”

E.F Schumacher offered us these thoughts in 1975 through his book Small is Beautiful (I highly recommend this read). He continues to discuss the natural process of growth that all great phenomena take in the natural world; every creature, ecosystem and social construct has come into being through a gradual process of genetic mutations and adaptations. It therefore follows that any great change in the human condition or development towards a productive and sturdy society is also a process of slow change.

One primary mistake, perhaps, in our efforts at supporting development in poorer regions of the world is to forget that sustainable change is a slow (and I emphasize slow), deliberate process. Planning has its place, however the chances that everything will go according to plan and produce the desired results is quite low. Ultimate success of an effort aimed at helping another group of human beings then rests on one’s ability to constantly adapt to challenges and treat the plan as a fluid strategy that changes and grows with the circumstances.

Unfinished fish ponds dug by FAO

As an example on the value of patience and adaptation in development, I often think about a school that I was acquainted with in Zambia in 2007. The community school was initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. One year was spent on researching the perfect location for the school based on data gathered over several districts on households affected by HIV/AIDS and population of orphaned children. Five to six months was spent training community facilitators and organizing a network of local teachers from the closest town to help teach the children. Before working with the school I read close to 100 pages front and back outlining how lessons should be conducted and what the specific results should be after one year on the children, their families and the community. Needless to say I was thrilled to be working with such a well organized and well thought out program.

The problems started almost immediately. Half of the teachers from the town did not fulfill their committed roles, materials for building the school never arrived on time, income generating activities for the school were hindered by theft and there was a corrupt facilitator to deal with. If you have lived and worked in Africa on development for very long none of these issues would come as a surprise. Indeed (perhaps sadly enough) they should be expected. The real evil however came not in the fact that these barriers to the realization of the school came up, but that FAO and their representatives did not take the time to listen, learn and adapt the program. The result after one year was a disgruntled community who felt that they were not being listened to, students who were not engaged in nearly complete lessons, and an office of development workers who had no clue what was going on on the ground.

This school and their experience with FAO is one of the primary reasons I started Color Me In!. As Schumacher reminds us development and human growth is a gradual process that revolves around the adaptation to challenges and change rather than the avoidance of issues. All I feel we can ask for is the patience and courage to allow for realities on the ground to guide gradual growth rather than aspirations from a Board room. A strategic plan for any development effort should then be a fluid and changing creature of its own with the space to allow ourselves to be wrong, to recognize challenges, and adapt to them. As they say in Zambia all growth is “pangono, pangono” or “slowly slowly.”

It seems that the culture we are trying to help has long been aware of the nature of change. Maybe it’s our turn to listen.



*Sarah Grant served in the Peace Corps  from 2005-2007 in Zambia and specialized in forestry, conservation farming, gender, small business and community growth. This is a reposting of an article on Sarah’s blog for Color Me In!, an NGO she founded that supports entrepreneurs and environmental preservation in Zambia through micro-loans and planting trees.