More about what to do (and a little bit about what not to do), from my perspective: My recommendations to those readers who are donors.
These opinions are based on experience in several different positions (including my current one) that have put me regularly in contact with aid donors of all categories (from mega-institutional donors all the way down to private individuals donating $100 at a time). These are my opinions: take them for what they’re worth. See also my usual favorite suspects, but particularly Good Intentions Are Not Enough and some classic Blood and Milk for more practical guidance on good donorship.
When selecting an NGO to support:
- Do not base your decision solely or even primarily on the basis of the organization’s overhead ratio or percentage. This number can mean a vast range of different things and is rarely what it appears. Moreover, it is incorrect to believe that the lower the overhead, the more efficient the organization. Any organization that claims less than 10 per cent overhead is suspect in my opinion. Look for language like, “… at least ninety cents of every dollar you donate goes directly to programs that help beneficiaries…”: They’re very likely either playing with the numbers, doing ineffective programming, or both. At a minimum, you’d want to clearly understand what such an organization specifically means by overhead and how the calculation is made.
- Look at the proportion of GIK (gifts in-kind) in the organization’s global annual budget. At a minimum you cannot understand an organization’s overhead figure without also understanding it’s GIK figure: in general, the higher the proportion of GIK, the higher the actual overhead figure. GIK is a contentious and multi-faceted discussion. For the purposes of this point, I would personally have misgivings about supporting an organization that showed GIK as more than 30 per cent of it’s global annual program budget.
- Look at actual program documents, not promotional material. Do not assume that an organization’s promotional material accurately reflects what it actually does or accomplishes. In every organization that I have worked for, and in every organization that I have any knowledge of the inner workings of via friends and acquaintances, there is a wide gap between what programs departments actually do and what marketing departments say they do. There are many causes of and reasons for this that I’ll not discuss here. Suffice to say that accurate, effective communication to the public about what NGOs actually do continues to be an industry-wide challenge. Ask to see actual program documents and summary budgets to get a clearer picture of what you’re thinking of supporting. Ask for clarification and explanation of what you do not understand.
- Support an NGO to do what it does. Either tailor your donation “needs” to the NGO you’re supporting, or support an NGO that does the kind of work that you want to support. I continue to be surprised at how many donors seem incapable of grasping this basic concept. You don’t go to a Ford dealership in hopes of buying a Toyota… If you want to support a women’s health project, don’t try to persuade an NGO that specializes in agriculture to do a women’s health project just for you. Go to an organization that does women’s health work. The same principle applies to geography: If you want to support something in Mozambique, pick an NGO that has presence in Mozambique…
- Look at an organization’s overall, global track record. Few NGOs are uniformly good or bad, globally. Even the worst have random stellar programs, and even the best have programs they’re ashamed of. Don’t let sensational coverage of an NGO program meltdown in country X persuade you necessarily that they’re bad in country Y. And by the same token, glowing coverage of an NGO here, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great there.
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When Selecting a PROJECT to Support:
Activities that are usually a safe bet: In general, the basics. The unsexy, tried and true long-term community-based development interventions. Volumes could be written about what to look for/at, what to prioritize as a donor, etc. I’ll try to keep it short:
-Community health. Look for evidence that the project/activity somehow links to the existing health system structure. Personnel should be the largest single budget category. Ask more questions if a lot of emphasis is on technology, equipment, or vehicles.
-Agriculture. Look for evidence that the project links with or builds the capacity of local agricultural extension. Look for evidence that the project somehow takes local market access issues into consideration (unless it’s a purely subsistence farming project, but these are rare…). Be wary of projects that introduce technology which must be imported (like special equipment), or that introduce non-indigenous crops.
-Economic Development. Look for evidence that the implementing org. thoroughly understands the local economic/market environment, and has designed the project accordingly. Look carefully at the sustainability projection and understand it before you agree to support. Be wary of projects that are based solely or primarily on an assumption of new enterprises started around activities not indigenous to the project location.
-Education. Understand the differences between “education”, “literacy”, and “vocational training” – know which one you’re supporting. Look for evidence that the project addresses the needs of those most likely to be excluded either intentionally or by default, usually: girls, children who have to work to support the family, or members of an ethnic or religious minority.
-Advocacy. Avoid supporting advocacy that is only about awareness-raising. Understand that advocacy is expensive, and that it is often difficult to demonstrate the link between dollars spent on advocacy and policy change.
-Emergency Response. I plan to write a separate post specifically for donors interested in supporting emergency response work. Briefly, for the purposes of this post: Understand that any international org you support will almost certainly not be first-on-the-ground (very initial response is done by local community). Look for some combination of the following being addressed in the first three months after the disaster: food, water, shelter, sanitation, protection, psycho-social support. Be wary of organizations whose emergency responses vary significantly from this.
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Activities that you should always question and understand clearly before agreeing to support:
-Projects that will run for less than three years (see the previous post: even this length may be too short) (Also, this does not apply to emergency relief programming).
-Large and/or frequent international shipments of GIK: medical equipment, donated pharmaceuticals, used computers or tech gear, etc. See the point above and also this post on Good Intentions… Providing GIK that is appropriate in a manner that is appropriate requires a level of effort beyond what most NGOs are willing to expend.
-Projects whose success depends on the deployment of short-term internationals.
-Projects or organizations whose success is tied to one charismatic individual (very often an expat who “sells” the project/organization very well back home, possibly a celebrity). Look beyond the colorful spokesperson for evidence of general organizational capacity and solid program implementation along the lines of what I articulate above.
-International adoption: Let me be clear right away that I’m not against adoption per se. But I am wary of NGOs who involve themselves in it. You need to realize that adoption is a for-profit enterprise that has arisen in response a demand. You should not think of adoption as a development intervention.
-Construction, infrastructure: Support projects where construction of infrastructure (buildings, bridges, roads…) is but one part of the means towards a larger project goal of bring sustainable change for people. Be wary of projects that are all or mostly about construction. Be very wary of projects that are all or mostly about construction and that rely on international short-time staff (church groups, volunteers…) to do the building.
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Activities that I cannot recommend at all.
-Orphanages. I’m sure I’ll provoke a firestorm of moral indignation from some for putting orphanages into this category. But I have to do it. Industry best-practices related to orphan care overwhelmingly focus on keeping orphaned and abandoned children in their home communities. Taking orphaned or abandoned children and putting them into an institutional setting, apart from the rest of their community, and usually with no clear primary care-provider is a bad idea any way you want to look at it. I’m not saying don’t care about and don’t help orphans. But I am fully against projects that build, run, maintain, or in some other way perpetuate orphanages.
Instead, support programs address the deeper issues which often lead to abandonment or children being orphaned: programs that keep orphans in their home communities, either by placing them with extended families or through local and culturally appropriate foster care; programs that increase viable livelihood options to families (including extended families) so that abandonment is not necessary; reunification of families separated through mass displacement (mainly in relief contexts); peace-building and reconciliation; anti-trafficking…