21 August 2009 ~ 2 Comments

NGOs, show me your failures!

Another post inspired from the Tales from the Hood blog, this one about honesty and NGO propaganda.

A comment from Mo-ha-med (below) is something I really agree with:

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?

My thoughts I posted are these:

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.

I also think it is SO important that those of us who work in or support NGOs ASK to see mistakes, failures, and current issues.  It isn’t enough to expect that we will be told, particularly as managers or donors.  For example, I was once trying to convince a large NGO working in Cambodia that their programs were negatively effecting education in the hundreds of schools across the country that they were working in due to ill-planned rules and regulations, lack of monitoring, and a backwards incentive system.  When I made my “You are harming education in Cambodia” presentation in their main office in the US, the reaction from the person in charge of the program globally was “But, when I was in Cambodia last year to see the project, the two schools I visited seemed to be doing well?’

The fact that she hadn’t ASKED to see the ones that were failing (which could have been the majority of the rest of the hundreds of schools they had left materials in) is part of the problem.  The fact that she hadn’t INCENTIVIZED her staff to show her the worst ones, the ones with problems, and the areas that needed improvement is part of the problem.  The fact that her staff in Cambodia, who I met with at the time, realized that their incentives were based on successfully following a formula dictated to them from the US, was part of the problem.  They were fearful to show the real results as, with a need to keep their job, they were more inclined to keep their mouths shut about the systematic problems they could clearly see in the organization than to risk being punished for being honest.

When we first started working with the communities we partner with, the answers we would get would be the answers the village chief or whomever we were speaking with thought WE wanted to hear.  We didn’t hear truths, but guesses as to “what will keep these foreigners and their money here? Do they want me to say we have 100% junior high school graduation rates? 0%? What answer are they looking for?”  I could see them struggling to try to identify our motives to then satisfy us with the correct answers we were looking for in order to keep our dollars in their village.

It took a LONG time to show them that the HONEST answers were what we were looking for.  The same with staff – if we thank and reward staff, or the NGOs we fund, for being honest about mistakes and problems they encounter, then we are more likely to get honest answers and be able to help come up with real solutions.

In the same vein, if we tell our PR teams to report photos of smiling kids and a rosy picture of results while skipping over all of the things which are not working, we will be contributing to this perceived culture that NGOs must be doing good all the time or are not to be trusted.  If we do that we are also harming our own programs, as staff and managers believe their own PR, and the programs of other organizations seeking best practices who never have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.  Instead, I believe that NGOs must be working towards positive changes all of the time, be honest about the problems they encounter while trying to get there, and be willing to be open about the changes they are making to their strategies, staff, and goals if and when they need to do so to improve their impact.  Then we can honestly start seeing some positive results.

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi


    Tales from the Hood’s response was spot on, especially in the vein of questions I had been giving him. I, and PEPY, should be practicing what I’m preaching. His reaction on his blog was:

    “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.”

    My response below:

    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.