Expat Aid Workers love building capacity, and where better to up your own field cred and edginess than building capacity with a sexy local NGO (SLoNGO)?
You know the NGOs I’m talking about. They have the smart, sassy English-speaking director (with the hot European husband embedded in the senior echelons of “The UN”) who spent a few years abroad in Spain or France, hangs out at all the expat parties and has set up a local think tank on accountability and transparency. Or they’re run by a hip local musician-slash-artist with a stylin’ afro and a few tattoos who rocks a funky hat and a bohemian style scarf and whose organization’s got a super cool name and 70s style logo and trains youth to rap about HIV prevention.
Or maybe the country has just come out of a civil war and there’s an ex-commandante with Marxist leanings who used to be clandestine and is now legit — he smokes and wears combat boots and a scruffy beard and a beret; he’s doing a civic education and leadership training project for former child soldiers and war orphans. Or it might be an organization of sex workers, headed by a former brothel owner who is a lesbian that was beaten by the police and then organized women to speak out for their rights to earn a living doing sex work….
Of course the real reason that you want to fund these SLoNGOs is their big impact on the beneficiary population. Well, and it doesn’t hurt that donors and the home office love them too – there’s no better way to keep the funds flowing than to take some directors or donors from back home on a field visit with a charismatic leader to interact with “dangerous” and “edgy” topics and populations, and go for drinks together in a “local-ish” bar afterwards. Or to submit a “sexy” grant that includes a partnership with one of these hot SLoNGOs.
And the benefits go beyond just work. By hooking up with a desirable SLoNGO, you become edgy and cool… by association. You’ll get invited to all the best glocal (global-local) parties, upping field credibility as well as being offered all kinds of opportunities to go native. It’s like getting a totally free second-hand pot-smoke buzz at a Jimmy Buffet concert.
A word of caution about SLoNGOs, however. They totally know they’re hot and that every other INGO wants them too…. They lead you on and you find yourself adjusting your capacity building indicators in order to keep them happy. They show up late to meetings. They turn in reports way after the due date and only after continual requests. They demand high salaries for themselves and their staff. They come out poorly on audits. And the minute you try to make them follow your rules, they start looking elsewhere, as if to say “I can get any INGO or UN donor I want.”
You find yourself arguing with your finance department because they are insisting your SLoNGO adhere to general accounting principles. I mean, give these poor SLoNGOs a break. Some of them only started up 6 months ago, and don’t have legal status; certainly you can bend the rules a bit in order to fund them! Because if you don’t get busy and tap that, someone else will and then they’ll get the privilege of being the founding donor! Who cares if the SLoNGO has no experience managing money and no legal structure, we can make this work, you insist. They need our help! And if a year later, they haven’t turned in a single financial report, it’s because your organization has failed to build their capacity. Keep increasing their funding before they look somewhere else and you lose them!
And when you see the EAW from that other big INGO cozying up to (i.e. getting drinks for) your favorite SLoNGO at the glocal party, it’s time to be assertive. Take control. Join the conversation to make your relationship clear. Make inside jokes. Drop the news that you’re snagging them an invite to a meeting abroad in Sweden or Holland or something so that they don’t go making any deals with anyone else. It’s important to be the only one in the eyes of the SLoNGO for at least the first 3 years of their existence.
After that, game over. By then you and your donors are getting bored, you’re tired of being a sugar momma (or daddy) and your organization is starting to ask the hard questions. You realize that the SLoNGO is becoming dependent on you and the relationship has become a bit twisted. What, these SLoNGOs think you are going to be funding them forever? They’re out of their minds. They really need to come up with a sustainability plan because, obviously, your INGO is trying to put itself out of business by ending poverty in the next few years.
Your SLoNGO is becoming a drag and you need to extricate yourself from the relationship. So you highly recommend them to the INGOs that you were shielding them from earlier to see if you can pass them off — kind of like hooking your best friend up with your ex.
Once they have a few other donors funding them and their funding base is “diversified” and more “sustainable,” suggest a “coordination body” of all the donors to sit and compare notes and jointly manage the SLoNGO relationship. Once that’s set up, drop out of the funding as soon as you can (but remain the chair of the “coordination body”). If you can’t get the coordination body going, another option is after a few years of steadily increasing funds and insisting on exponential growth and ‘scaling up before their time,’ throw an audit and some serious conditions in there and see if your SLoNGO can handle it. If they can’t, well there you go – you’ve found yourself a legit reason to stop funding them.
And good riddance, anyway. After 3 years, that SLoNGO isn’t really so interesting anymore. Your INGO has changed its strategy, and now you’re flirting with that hot feminist filmmaker that trains street children to take videos of their realities with mobile phones to then project on a giant screen in the slums. Or maybe you’re thinking about how you can hook up with that dangerously sexy former gang member who’s training youth in juvenile detention centers to do graffiti arts and refurbish old cars for re-sale as a revolving fund for tattoo removal….