The important process of vetting
In our work as Periclean Scholars we are often faced with the challenge of critically evaluating Non-profits, NGOs, and generally any aid program in another country. This task, necessary for establishing an open and authentic partnership, is challenging for many reasons. It can be hard to know where to begin in evaluating an organization, what criteria to measure and how to access the right information. It can also be hard setting standards. What issues are passable or necessary given the nature of aid work and what issues should be considered important enough to exclude the possibility of a partnership? Our class developed a partnership questionnaire in response to this challenge, which can be found in Mapping Our Successes: The Periclean Handbook, but that document does not show the entire process of evaluating an organization.
There are three general categories our Class deemed were critical in evaluating a non-profit when considering a partnership: internal structure, finance, and programming. The first category concerns itself with how decisions are made and how challenges are responded to, as well as the makeup of the power-structure and the decision-making hierarchy of the organization. The second category is concerned with financial sustainability. The final category, programming, has to do with how target communities are identified and communicated with, as well as how programs are designed, implemented and assessed. Because potential partner organizations come in all shapes and sizes, it’s very difficult to establish standards or criteria with which to evaluate. Instead, our Class identified, as discussed below, several key considerations and warning signs for each category.
The vast majority of Non-profit organizations has a board of directors, usually comprised of around 12 individuals who guide the organization, decide it’s goals, and advise the director. The board is usually comprised of some funders, some members of the organization (such as the director, the founder), and a financial officer. A great sign for any NGO is if a member of that organizations target community is part of the board. In fact, the most successful and determined NGOs are started by communities that want to help themselves and have multiple community members on their board. It’s important to communicate with as many board members as possible; these people know everything there is to know about the organization and are usually willing to share their opinion. Talking only with a director or founder can sometimes result in optimistic information; board members are generally less involved with the challenges of running the organization and can give more honest opinions.
It is also important to find out the responsibilities of the director, how they delegate tasks and how they make decisions. A good director will communicate closely with their board and staff about challenges and decisions, and will take everyone’s input into consideration. A definite red-flag is if a director makes all or most decisions independent of any input. Directors often spend most of their time fund-raising, coordinating with staff about projects, and designing new projects or modifying existing projects. If they aren’t doing all of this with the well-informed feedback of the board and the target community, that’s a red flag. Another thing to look out for in a director is a white-savior complex or a MONGO complex, you can read about those in a blog post by our program Director Tom Arcaro.
When inquiring about finances, it’s important to get some key numbers. To get a good grasp of an organization’s finances, find out their annual costs of operation, their annual income, and the size of their endowment. The annual income should obviously be larger than their costs, but it’s important to understand also what an organization’s sources of income are. Is this organization relying on donations? Are most of the donations large or small, reoccurring or one-time? If an organization gets most of it’s money from small, one-time donors, that can be time consuming and it is a red flag for sustainability. Donations can be a great way to raise funds, but grants are better. Many organizations work annually off of the money from multiple grants that they reapply for continually, once an organization satisfies a grant’s requirements once it is a good bet that they will satisfy those same requirements when reapplying. A sustainable, successful and healthy organization will know where it’s funding will come from for years in advance. A good sign is if an organization has a grant-writer on staff, you can ask that person how successful the organization has been at applying for grants. If an organization is putting all of its effort into small-scale donation-based fund-raising, that’s a red flag. Below is a link to a site where you can find, at the least, a 501c3’s annual revenue and expenditures, sometimes you can even find information on their board, impact metrics and some external reviews:
There are two critical components to effective aid/development programming: critical research and community input. If only one of those components is considered, you’ll end up with partially effective programming at best, and harmful or toxic aid at worst. Critical research must be done to understand the history of aid programming targeted at a given issue in a given demographic community. This research can steer program development in the right direction, it can show us what has succeeded and what has failed, and sometimes it can even show us why. Critical research can also key us in to the systemic causes of a certain issue; for example, perhaps a well-building program isn’t a good solution when a textiles factory up-stream is polluting the groundwater. However, no matter how much research is done, no program should be seriously considered without the critical feedback and input of the target community. In my experience, cultural insensitivity, or rather blatant cultural ignorance is the cause of most failed aid. Ideally, the target community is involved in program-development from the brainstorming stage; they know what issues harm them the most and what solutions they are willing to adopt. Furthermore, a community that has ownership and creatorship in a program is immeasurably more likely to put in the work to maintain that program in the event that the non-profit has to become less involved.
So, when communicating with a potential partner NGO/non-profit, ask about why they implement programming in the way that they do, and ask how they developed the program. In any case, if you hear phrases like, “we/I couldn’t stand to see the suffering, so we had to do something”, avoid that organization like the plague. There’s actually two things wrong with the above language: first, there’s a savior complex implied, this organization was motivated by pity and likely has egoistic motives; second, they focused more on the problem than the solution, and that leads to programming that merely eases the detectable symptoms of some problem instead of addressing the root causes(someone should do a case study on how many orphanages it takes to eliminate childhood poverty, or maybe I’m just thinking of the start of a really morbid joke). Also, when asking about programming, the more community involvement an organization actively seeks the better.
The last major consideration with programming is an organizations metrics for measurement. A metric for measurement is how an organization determines the effectiveness of their programming. This can take many forms, quantitative or qualitative, and is entirely dependent on the type of aid being delivered. What’s important here is that critical metrics are in place, and that the organization isn’t throwing money at a problem and hoping for the best. A good organization measures the number of individuals it reaches and the amount of money spent on each person/community. The best organizations start with the goal to improve or reduce some easily measured condition, such as #individuals facing malnutrition, and then measure that metric constantly and revises it’s programming to achieve the best results. When quantitative measurements aren’t possible, unbiased and impersonal qualitative feedback is necessary.
These considerations are far from exhaustive, and may not be completely applicable in all cases. Hopefully though, this gives you a starting place when considering how to vet a particular organization. Remember, whatever organization you partner with becomes a reflection of the Periclean Scholars, so make sure that you hold them to those standards we strive to attain ourselves while knowing that they face the same real-world challenges we face. If an organization presents with some red flags, tell them. It can be socially challenging, but if we want to help the communities of our target countries it means helping these organizations get better as well. If an organization is unwilling to or unable to address the issues you find in the vetting process, you must decide whether to design your partnership in a way that avoids the dangers implicit in those red flags or if it is better to avoid a partnership. This can be a challenging decision, but it is important to take it seriously enough that you experience the frustration of challenge.
Author: Christian Gilbert, Periclean Scholars Class of 2016