Rethinking Social Impact Funding and Delivery Frameworks
Asaad Taha, PhD, MSP®, PRINCE2®
During my social impact career, I have viewed the world from the highest windows and deepest trenches, literally and metaphorically. I have seen it served by the best intentions, fullest energies, and strategic efforts. But, I have also seen those attempts repeatedly fail or come up short.
In some low-income countries (LICs), the initiatives launched by non-profits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other providers have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous political leaders. Still, I have been dismayed repeatedly by the failure of even the most noble efforts.
More low-income and developing economies host more non-profits and non-governmental organizations than ever. The NGOs step up to serve needs between charities and government programs. States — from the sub-Asian continent to sub-Saharan Africa to Central and South America — have seen the introduction of cash, products, and services. Yet, the quantity of aid does not match the quality.
Jessamyn Shams-Lau who with Jane Leu and Vu Le wrote Unicorns Unite: How nonprofits and foundations can build EPIC Partnerships said,
“The world is facing urgent and huge challenges, but changemakers are too busy fighting the wrong battle. We’re stuck in a dysfunctional system that prevents us from making the world a happier, healthier, more equitable place” (Miltzer, 2018).
To this noble (if paternalistic) end, non-governmental aid is distributed to relieve, rehabilitate, and develop. It supplements the local assistance from churches, associations, and civil organizations. And, where governments prove corrupt and untrustworthy, the appeal of NGOs has gained even more credibility. “On the other hand, markets globally are on the ascent in terms of ideological and resource support, while those in the Third World are still nascent or in decline” (Makoba, 2002).
This puts NGOs and other giving organizations in an unfortunate place. “If they stand in favour of the emancipation of humankind (whether at home or abroad), then the focus of their work has inevitably to be in the political domain, supporting those social movements that seek to challenge a social system that benefits a few and impoverishes the many” (NGOs in Africa: A tainted history, 2018).
Still, despite the efforts of LICs and the goodwill of HICs (high-income countries), non-profits and NGOs continue to falter. Analysts at Stanford University have found, “innovation plays a minor — yet very specific — role in allowing highly successful social enterprises to deliver solutions at an appropriate scale. In examining less successful organizations, meanwhile, we have found that what holds them back is not an inability to innovate but a failure to embed their innovation efforts within a robust process for translating those efforts into impact” (Seelos & Mair, 2016).
It’s here that we believe we can help. NGOs and other non-profit organizations involved in the work of high impact social benefit need a new way to see themselves organizationally and a new dynamic and purpose-driven framework, a robust and scalable solution. They need a viable and vital device to manage a portfolio that aligns resources, processes, projects, programs and purpose.
Thinking Our Way
Over years of personal experience in different sectors, working in a continuum of delivery systems — from design to the front line, from the war room to grassroot trenches, I have witnessed the rise and fall of many social impact paradigms, theories, methodologies and initiatives. Being in the trenches provided an unfortunate perspective on a dysfunctional development and humanitarian system.
Focused on how organizations organize, how typical organizational structures fail, and what solutions can work, I have always found value in observing the problem and working back to its origins before working forward to a best practice solution:
1. Such organizations imprudently adopt current business theory and buzzwords leading to an often-confusing mix of activities, initiatives, projects, or programs.
2. This results in fragmented, compartmentalized, and unilateral efforts.
3. And, creating the need for a holistic vision for change or impact.
The renowned management guru Peter F. Drucker taught that businesses had much to learn from non-profits and non-profits had much to learn from businesses. “Few people are aware that the nonprofit sector is by far America’s largest employer. Every other adult — a total of 80 million plus people — works as a volunteer, giving on average nearly five hours each week to one or several nonprofit organizations. This is equal to 10 million full-time jobs” (Drucker, 1989).
Still, too many high-impact social actors and change-makers have no helicopter oversight. They misunderstand systems dynamics and fail to see gaps in strategic execution capabilities. Their tunnel vision favors social interventions not social transformation, and their behavior inclines towards an activity, project, or program-driven implementation approach — not well suited for addressing complex and protracted socioeconomic issues.
The needy are at the end of a long supply-implementation chain from the donor, and too often something goes wrong in the transmission of intent and resources:
- In one project in an eastern African country sponsored by one of biggest international donors, only 12.21-cents of every donated dollar reached the direct beneficiaries. The project budget was $8,673,250.62; therefore, the financial value actually delivered ranged from $104,079.01 to $1,734,650.13. Even this amount delivered only 35–41% of the promised outcomes.
- The project sought to build latrines to improve sanitation and health conditions. However, they built them where the latrines would open directly onto the community’s markets, a culturally and gender insensitive move. The result culturally prevented girls and women from using the latrines.
- The director of the same religious international nongovernmental organization (NGO) submitted another project proposal for funding. The proposal included a budget line to pay the school fees for his four children. Although the organization has multiple projects funded by different donors, the director had loaded the budget with estimated school fees ranging from $100,000 to $300,000 per student. Given that unethical move, I rejected that project.
However, after I rejected the proposal, my boss warned me about being overly demanding.
Most donors’ and taxpayers’ dollars are depleted over unreasonable overhead and lengthy implementation chain:
Donated Dollar Delivery Systems: Donor → Government Contractor/UN Agency → International Nongovernmental Organization (INGO) → National Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) → Grassroots Implementer.
Unfortunately, there is no dynamic to these linear concepts.
A Confusing Mix
Too many links on this supply chain have imprudently appropriated modern management theory and vocabulary. These theories and practices are products of Western MBA schools, and where they are practically applicable, they reflect Japanese, American, and Western European cultural influences.
Six Sigma, TQM, Lean Management, Logistics Theory, Supply Chain Management, Blockchain Technology, all these labels mean little to the grassroots implementers or the people they serve. They may be vital to the donor’s and organization’s performance and stakeholders. But, they lose and confuse in the very environments they seek to serve.
The confusion may result from the culture, the education, and the economic conditions. Still, working at cross-purposes diminishes, diffuses, and depletes the efforts. Where they succeed, it is usually the result of the work of positive deviants, those implementers who have the insight to recognize and implement the peculiar local strengths and capabilities. Operating on instinct or inventing out of necessity, these people manage the portfolio of challenges before them.
A Fragmented Vision
Like you, I have dealt with appearing and disappearing management theories, styles and procedures, and buzzwords and fuzz words. The management schools and their scholars have driven the multiplication of management and production theories and vocabulary. Thousands of titles are published annually, and the vocabulary works its way down into everyday conversation.
This damages real-world understanding and implementation. As the terms become universal, they sacrifice meaning and value. As they multiply, so many of the outputs simply finesse the same thing. As the MBA academy produces more and more students, it floods libraries with efforts to discover the next buzzword. And, most of the lessons taught and work produced come from faculties and students with no in-field experience.
Now, I admit much has been valuable and innovative in these contributions, but just as much has been confusing and misleading. When citizens leave developing economies to study in the West, they return with energy, passion, and ideas. However, where these best intentions and efforts have failed, it has often been a failure of the terminology and metaphor.
We have all been through cycles, waves, and analytics. We have worked with projects, programs, and portfolios. We have dealt with verticals and horizontals, functions and cross-functions, and disciplines and trans-disciplines. And, we have ridden waves and reiterations of the same thing, so much so that what was once “the flavor of the month” has become “the flavor of the year” — all because of concept recycling and lack of innovation.
This styling of communication misdirects, wastes, and misleads. The volunteers and end users on the ground do not benefit from academically-framed models and processes published at the Wharton School of Business or the London School of economics. It only imposes linguistic limits and boundaries with frameworks meant for transferability. However, in foreign cultures reduced by economic deprivation, they stifle organic dynamism, agile response, independent thinking, and positive deviance.
A Holistic Necessity
Unfortunately, many social impact organizations cannot escape the domain cocoon or respond to current ecological deep changes. They cannot break through the artificial silos and imaginary sectoral boundaries created by ideological disagreement, financial interest and influence competition. Even if they do, it is mostly a shallow adoption of a popular practice jargon to impress rather than implement.
To successfully and fruitfully analyze the decisions and behavior of social impact actors, I must understand they “do not behave or decide as atoms outside a social context, nor do they adhere slavishly to a script written for them by the particular intersection of social categories that they happen to occupy” (Gravenotter, 1985, p. 457).
Lacking holistic vision, resources only disappear into activities-based programs or projects. Without the strategic clarity needed to create the capabilities from these investments, neither the organization or end user realize the desired social benefits. Unfortunately, many social impact transformation efforts only fall short in the execution phase.
The sector requires long overdue structural reform and deep cultural changes, a radical business model transformative shift, not a gradual evolution or a drift. The socio-political, ecological changes and economic realities make deconstruction of the current system and reconstruction inevitable.
Without a 10,000-mile high view of the problem, we are left to pursue horizontal plans. Linear strategies that parse problems, processes, and solutions into incremental moves on a single plane. On the other hand, a holistic approach requires an organizational framework that encourages and enables a fluid dynamic, scalable future, and independent innovation.
As this book develops, I will explore the issues covered briefly here. I want to explore how and why the most noble and earnest efforts falter with a hope to optimize their passion and intent. This entails some consideration of what’s not working and defining an organizational framework that could make the difference.
In successive assessments, I hope to show the ineffective mix of activities, initiatives, projects, and programs that fail both donor and recipient. I want to examine how the resulting fragmented, compartmentalized, and unilateral outcomes fail noble purpose. And, I believe I can present a fluid organizational framework that energizes and executes plan and purpose.
As an Afro-Arabian and Nubian descendant, I have inherited a DNA that mixes stories, mythology, philosophy, religion and science. I believe this provides some advantage in the way I speak, write, read, listen, think, and reason. It encourages me to think on many planes and from several dimensions simultaneously.
My holistic lens, if I may call it that, invites readers to contribute to and shape the conversation started here. My DNA seeks to democratize this development believing no debate or analysis is finite. I need readers to become coauthors encouraged to add feedback, personal narratives, and case study experience.
To the extent that this is “my work,” I see no conclusion without your partnership. It’s from the challenging, churning, and boiling that chemistry reduces the confusion and misdirection to something richly new and impactful in a new social impact paradigm. A paradigm that has all features of a living organism; sophisticated and dynamic. It can breathe, metabolize, grow, reproduce, and sense. It has to be made of frameworks which can interact with the system of systems. Also, capable of instinctively generate buffering effects to any unfavorable stimuli.
Author: Asaad Taha, PhD, MSP®, PRINCE2® is a social entrepreneur and principal advisor with multisectoral expertise in global and national organizations across continents including UN agencies, Donors DFID, U.S. Government and European Union agencies, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM), International Non-Governmental Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, and Community-based Organizations.
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Drucker, P. (1989, July-August). What business can learn from nonprofits. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2018, from https://hbr.org/1989/07/what-business-can-learn-from-nonprofits
Gravenotter, M. (1985, Nov.). Economic action and social structure: The problem of enbededness. American Journal of Sociology, 91(3), 481–510. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2018, from https://sociology.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj9501/f/publications/economic_action_and_social_structure.pdf
Makoba, J. (2002, Spring). Nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) and Third World development: An alternative approach to development. Journal of Third World Studies. Retrieved Dec. 14, 2018, from Global Policy Forum: https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/177/31620.html
Miltzer, J. (2018, June 6). The partnership nightmare: What’s wrong with the social sector’s approach to funding — And how to fix it. Retrieved Dec, 18, 2018, from Next Billion: An Initiative of the William Davidson Institute at The University of Michigan: https://nextbillion.net/social-sector-partnership-nightmare/
NGOs in Africa: A tainted history. (2018, March 15). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2018, from New African: https://newafricanmagazine.com/news-analysis/archives/ngos-in-africa-a-tainted-history/
Seelos, C., & Mair, J. (2016, Fall). When innovation goes wrong. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved Dec. 17, 2018, from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/when_innovation_goes_wrong