How Funders Can Help Reimagine the Relationship Between International NGOs and Local Partners

Ruth Levine

Under pressure to reimagine philanthropic practice, private foundations are increasingly attentive to the quality of their relationships with grantees. They’re asking important questions of themselves with greater frequency: Are we listening? Are we providing adequate overhead and flexible support for organizational health? Are we consistently acting in respectful partnership with the organizations that depend on us for financial support — and upon whom we depend for advocacy, research, and the delivery of services to people we seek to benefit?

These are all excellent questions, and many foundations are developing and sharing lessons about improved practice, including trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking, and funding based on a true cost model.

Private foundations working internationally have an even more challenging agenda to pursue if they want their practice to be consistent with organizational values. They need to figure out how to foster relationships of trust not only with their own grantees — almost all of which are international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) — but also with the in-country civil society organizations that grantees call their “local partners.”

Out of every million dollars philanthropies target toward improving lives and livelihoods in developing countries, more than $800,000 is channeled through INGOs based in Washington, D.C., New York, London, and other major cities in wealthy countries. Some of these mission-driven organizations are advocating for changes in high-level policy in donor countries, but most undertake their work overseas, aiming to improve health, education, and other outcomes within poor communities.

To do this, some establish in-country offices, where their own staff — both expatriate and national — carry out funded programs. Most, however, can only do their work by establishing relationships with local organizations that operate at the national or community level and are kept afloat by grants and contracts from international partners.

For a private foundation engaged in global development, the quality of the partnership between the INGO and in-country partners is a fundamental determinant of whether and how dollars turn into results. INGOs act, in effect, as an extension of the foundation, and as such should be held accountable not only for carrying out the agreed program of work, but for doing so in a way that aligns with the foundation’s values. Unfortunately, for the most part, the nature of the relationship between an INGO and its local partners — whether good, bad, or just plain ugly — goes unobserved by funders.

It’s time for that to change.

To that end, here are five basic questions that staff at foundations working internationally can — and should — ask their INGO grantees about how the resources they are entrusted with are supporting local partners. By interrogating the nature of these relationships, foundation staff can also help to set (or reset) expectations within their grantees.

1. How long has the INGO worked with its local partner(s) and is this a relationship that will continue after the completion of the grant?

As is the case with the connection between the funder and any grantee, relationships of trust and mutual support are built over time, working through the successes and inevitable challenges. All too often — and in part because of short-term and volatile funding — INGOs establish transactional arrangements with local organizations, working with them only for the duration of a particular project, and then leaving the community or engaging with different organizations in the future. This increases the risk that the local partner will not share important information about difficulties in program execution, and limits the chances that the funding will lead to stronger, sustained civil society organizations.

2. Who designs the program of work?

Local organizations bring crucial knowledge about the context they operate in, which helps to inform what the needs are and how they can best be met. Insights about the political environment, social norms, and what is likely to succeed or fail are invaluable, and are most useful during program design.

Sometimes, however, INGOs and their funders develop theories of change and action plans in relative isolation from in-country organizations, considering their local partners to be implementers rather than co-creators. The more an INGO grantee can point to specific ways in which their proposed work has been shaped by local organizations’ expertise, the more a funder can have confidence that the relationship is one of mutual respect — and that the planned work has a good chance of succeeding.

3. How much of the funding is going to the in-country partners, and what do the local organizations know about the overall grant budget?

Perhaps the most sensitive aspect of the relationship between an INGO and its local partners is around money. In-country civil society organizations are keenly aware of a power asymmetry that mirrors the one between a foundation and prospective grantees: with respect to the relationship with the local organization, the INGO has the money — or has access to those who do — and can thus set the rules of the game.

In-country organizations know that INGOs often have well-appointed offices in wealthier cities, fly around the world, and pay for hotels and meals while traveling. And they know that INGO accounting and fundraising staff, many of whom they may never have met, often ask for tiresome reports about spending and project execution. While they observe all this, they often feel that their own organization is short-changed on funding, particularly for administrative staff and other types of overhead.

INGOs tend to be reluctant to share information about the full funding picture with local partners because it almost inevitably reveals the disparity between the INGO’s part of a grant and that which is passed on to the local organization. But relationships of trust — and potentially a shift in the balance of funding — can be created when INGOs are transparent about the funding they receive, the costs of their own organizations’ operation, and how they negotiate the funding terms with local partners.

4. What is the value brought by the INGO beyond channeling funding?

INGOs have a comparative advantage in connecting to funding sources, and in financial management that accords with foundation and bilateral agency requirements. Beyond those specializations, however, INGOs have the potential to do much more. For example, they can share global expertise with local organizations that might benefit from it, they can foster cross-country exchanges of experience, they can aggregate data and stories for advocacy at the international level, and they can provide leadership and organizational coaching to strengthen the capacity of in-country partners.

An INGO should be able to articulate with specificity the value it brings, both to its funders and to its local partners. It also should have a means of obtaining feedback about whether it is delivering on those promises.

5. What credit is given to the local organization for its contributions?

It is surprisingly rare for an INGO to credit local partner organizations with the results that can, in fact, only have been obtained with smart strategy and hard work on the part of that local partner. Ideally, an INGO would promote the work of its local partners by name, fully acknowledging the role played in program design and execution. This should happen not only in private reports to funders, but in publications, social media, and any other publicly available materials. Moreover, leaders of local partner organizations should be given the opportunity to represent the work at regional and international venues.

INGOs play a vital role in the ecosystem of “global development.” Their work permits philanthropic dollars to reach people that benefit from funded programs, and they create a bridge that carries both funding and expertise. However, INGOs have a mixed track record of engagement with in-country mission-driven organizations and need to be encouraged to engage with transparency, respect, and genuine partnership. Private foundations can do this not only by modeling good practices in relating to grantee organizations, but also by expressing interest in how those grantees interact with their local partners. Asking the right questions is a small but vital step toward better, higher impact global philanthropy.

Ruth Levine is a policy fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and formerly director of the Global Development and Population Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthLevine5.

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