Honesty 102: What We Give

6 Aug

I was genuinely pleased and a tiny bit surprised to see a comment from Mo-ha-med on my previous “honesty” post. I like his blog “The Traveler Within” and have followed it for some time. Check him out. Although I don’t think it’s really possible to measure, I have thought quite a bit about the suggestion that what we get as aid workers is most important and meaningful in the context of what we give – there should be a positive balance of our contribution, compared with what we take.

I’ve touched on this before (here). And in fact this was sort of the theme of the very first post ever, back on the blogspot version of Tales From the Hood: We need to keep our actual contributions in perspective. 

Simply that. Or maybe not so simple.

In the course of being honest about what we give, I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of two things:

We need to stay focused on the beneficiaries: I struggle, sometimes daily, to keep the work about those people that we’re supposedly doing all of this for: “The poor” It is far too easy to fall into a routine of meetings and email and deadlines and inhuman numbers, and to let those things become the raison d’etre. This is the perennial challenge of working for an NGO. There are systems that must be maintained, policies that must be adhered to, and procedures that must be followed. It is a huge challenge just to remember to step back (I try to do it daily) and see the bigger picture, to situate those meetings and emails and deadlines in the context of what they mean in the lives of those our programs are meant to help.

And in my experience it is just as easy to make this mistake, to be distracted in this manner in “the field” as it is at a regional or head office. Whether we’re based in Brussels or Washington D.C. or Managua a remote village two Bajaj-hours from Mymensingh, the actual work of aid work can very quickly become focused on immediate tasks. The aid world is as much a rat-race as the for-profit world. It is the tyranny of the urgent. It is manipulating documents (proposals, reports, budgets…). It is responding to a cacophony of demanding voices, the loudest of which is never that of the beneficiaries.

It’s hard. Deadlines do have to be met. Reports do have to be submitted. Proposals do have to be well-written. But none of that releases us from the individual responsibility of making sure that we see the big picture and keep the work about the beneficiaries.

We need to guard against overstating our own accomplishments. I’m talking about our own accomplishments as individuals, and also as organizations. Part of this comes from the much-discussed aid world culture of fear around bad evaluations. No one wants their program to receive a negative review in the L.A. Times or get slammed in the blogosphere for some out-of-vogue advocacy initiative. But wanting to paint the rosiest possible picture is still not the whole story either.

I think as well that we’re very often simply too quick to judge our programs one way or the other. Everyone knows that good development and positive sustainable change take time. Years. Maybe decades. And so it seems to me ironic that we’re very quick to document best-practices or declare our projects successful after just two or three years. And at least one result of this is that very often we evaluate as success, what is in reality simply the absence of obvious failure.

Part of the answer, I think, is to refuse to believe our own propaganda: we understand that marketing and PR colleagues need to communicate in certain ways to certain audiences; we understand that reports have to be written in certain ways if we want follow-on funding (of course we want it). But we have to be honest with ourselves and our circles about where the gaps and shortfalls and open questions really are, not just to make ourselves feel better about having “been honest”, but with a view to specifically doing better.

I’m not saying trumpet our failures. I’m not saying that we should all beat ourselves up constantly about where we have failed professionally (though there are scenes from my own professional past that replay themselves in my head when the nights are dark…). I am saying, everyone needs to bring the “we totally ROCK” rhetoric down a couple of levels. I am saying that we need to more honestly assess what it is that we actually give to those that our organizations and programs are meant to help.

8 Responses to “Honesty 102: What We Give”

  1. Mo-ha-med 10 August, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    First – thank you for the nod! Very kind of you.

    I’m particularly curious about a remark of yours about how the PR dept needs to communicate things in a certain way and that we shouldn’t “believe our own propaganda”.

    So essentially, yes, we do lie, and it’s okay for the PR department to lie to some people (or donors), but we should keep our heads cool?
    I guess my question is – isn’t there a world where even our PR department can be honest about what we do, how much we’ve done, and how well we’ve done it?

    Deontology aside, it would be an added incentive for us (albeit negative at times) if we knew that what we do – good or bad – will be publicised, rather than knowing that our PR dept can and will whitewash our screwups…

    • J. 12 August, 2009 at 8:33 am #

      …and as usual Mo-ha-mad helps makes the follow-up discussion far more interesting than the actual post!

      I think that “lie” is too strong. It conveys a level and quality of intent to mislead that I honestly do not believe to be present in the vast majority of cases in the NGO world. In every organization that I worked for, and in every organization that I have any kind of knowlege of the inner workings of, there is communication slippage between what programs people do in the field and what program accomplish, and what gets communicated back to constituents. In my view there are many reasons for and contributing factors to this that would take a very long time to fully discuss. The end result, though, in my opinion is that the general public – at least in Europe and North America – has a very simplistic, un-nuanced, and sometimes flat incorrect understanding of what aid is and does.

      My point with the comment that you reference is more about filtering out that communications/PR/marketing BonoAngelinaOprahCelebrity-ooh-rah! background noise in order to more accurately and honestly assess for ourselves what it is that we accomplish.

  2. Daniela Papi 21 August, 2009 at 1:50 am #

    I couldn’t agree more. Mo-ha-med – that is just what I was thinking, why are we even jumping to the conclusion that we should consider that our PR team would be overstating what we actually accomplish? That is like accepting defeat or admitting failure at honesty before we even start trying.

    I would not trust any NGO that does not have a very open and honest answer to the question “What mistakes have you made recently and how are you working to improve your organization based on what you learned?” I would also not be inclined to give money to any organization which only has positive things on their website – every group ever makes mistakes! We should be sharing those so others can learn and until we start realizing that that IS our PR teams job, to BE honest, we are not going to get very far in the honesty department.

    • J. 21 August, 2009 at 3:18 am #

      I completely agree with your second paragraph. Please share the URL for a page where we can find external evaluations of Pepy programs (in their entirety), recommendations, full disclosure on your funding streams and operating budgets (including expat and local staff salaries), audit reports, and information about how you build accountability into your programs so that I can link to it on this site.

  3. Daniela Papi 21 August, 2009 at 2:47 am #

    More thoughts on the topic here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/08/ngos-show-me-your-failures/

  4. Daniela Papi 21 August, 2009 at 4:48 am #

    Ha. Touché.

    I agree with your point, I and PEPY, and nearly every organization out there, can do better at being open about what we share and what we learn. I can see why you might have taken offense to my comment, seeing it as holier-than-thou as if I was claiming that PEPY is indeed doing everything right. I am the first to admit that we are not at all, but I do think that it is important to STRIVE to be honest and improve. Strive for more honest PR. Open ourselves up to dialogues with those who have questions about our programs. Conversations with people who disagree with me or with what we are doing at PEPY have been some of the most productive conversations I have had in the cyber world. It helps me learn, gives me a chance to voice the “why’s” behind our decisions, and helps me see the failures I might have missed. In this case, your critique of PEPY as not transparent enough is indeed an impetus to improve, so I thank you for that

    I should have included a line in my comment stating “I am not saying we should run around screaming about our failures, but we should admit them, be open to discussions about them when asked, and not only highlight our successes. Nor am I saying I’m doing a great job at that now.” I should have included that, and yes, you are very right, we can do a better job about this at PEPY.

    We are trying though, and we are working on doing more. The places we do share are those where I believe it is most important: with the communities we work in, with our partner organizations, with the NGO membership organizations in Cambodia that we belong to, with our staff, and with the individual donors who support us. We regularly correspond with these people openly about where we have failures.

    We share some of this information through the critical views section of our website where we have discussed critiques of our work. We have our 990 up on a page in About Us called “Our Funding” http://pepyride.org/about-us/our-funding?896dfae06aed6a520ee2014926e62bae=986bb4bc6d20d554afbba58a85bc3c65 showing all of our expenses, and we have a link in our donations stating that all foreign staff salaries are funded directly by donations allocated as such. It states my salary and our Managing Directors salary by line and by name on page 2. We were the only two full time foreign salaried staff in 2008. As an FYI, our foreign staff salaries are determined by equating them to local equivalents. Our Cambodian Country Manager was receiving $1100 per month, and when our Managing Director (a foreigner) and I instated salaries for ourselves. We determined our salaries by equating them with our local Country Manager’s considering that our workloads and hours worked were always equivalent if not higher. We both get $1100 per month too as of August 2008 when we were given a large grant which in part required us to pay ourselves rather than work at PEPY part time and bring in income elsewhere as we had been doing. The grant is on a three year basis to help us transition to complete Khmer leadership. Most of our programs are fully managed by Khmer staff, but there are still quite a few areas where I need to let go of the reigns and let their decisions be final, and this is something I am indeed working on.

    You have a good point that having an operational budget up in addition to our 990 will be a better way to show more details about our spending. Our appendix does include expenditures by category, but I will speak with my staff and my board first, and make sure that we get additional financial information up. You are correct, all these details should all be on our site and I will look to improve our transparency there. However as you can see by this email, we are happy to give these details in a public way when asked.

    On our PEPY team journal we include a critical views section including times where people have disagreed with our work. We have a lessons learned section where we also write about things that we are working to improve. I don’t think NGOs have to have a section saying “here are our mistakes” but should admit them when asked. That question I wrote in the above is one I do indeed ask when I meet with NGOs. Their answers and reactions are important to me, the same way it would be when asking a friend what they are working to improve in their own lives. If someone gives themselves a 5 out of 5 all of the time, I’m skeptical to say the least.

    Extreme transparency for all organizations might be a very good thing for the industry. I’m not opposed to the idea. I assume (hope?) there was some sarcasm in your reply as well. I think it is important to engage in the critiques of our NGOs, and I’m happy to do so, in this case and in any case which pushes us to improve the work we do.

    • J. 21 August, 2009 at 9:42 pm #

      Only a tiny bit of sarcasm. We’re now quite a ways beyond the original point of this post, but I’ll just say I remain unconvinced that universal extreme, total transparency by NGOs, totally available online for any random person to stumble across would be necessarily a “good thing.”

      Nothing but love for you, here, but I’m going to ask if your reply to this is more than a couple of sentences, that you send it directly to me as pesonal email.🙂


  1. lessonsilearn.org | NGOs, show me your failures! - 29 July, 2014

    […] post inspired from the Tales from the Hood blog, this one about honesty and NGO […]

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