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A new kind of aid donor: Four things they do differently

We all know there are aid donors and international funding partners out there that want to change “business as usual” in development (or at least people inside those institutions that do). We also all know that for various reasons, they’re not moving quick enough for those working on the ground.

New donors could come in and fill the gaps. But more importantly, we need a new kind of donor, whether they are recent to the scene or not.

The organizations that I see doing the most important and exciting work out there these days most often do not fit into current donors’ way of doing business. Donors who rely on lengthy proposals, onerous reporting, and heavy-handed funding mechanisms frankly cannot offer useful capital to organizations that don’t fit the mold.

To change this, this new kind of donors will do four things better than donors still stuck in the old ways of moving money around:

1) They are patient. They invest not just today’s services or activities delivered, but allow for uncertainty and potentially lower short-term results in favor of long-term outcomes.

2) Their money follows ideas and people, rather than activities. Project may be the modus operandi, but they do not allow them define or confine relationships.

3) They demonstrate a tolerance for risk, rather than failure. They help keep a focus on results, yet offer flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions.

4) They are able and willing to look within and examine how their own policies and practices exclude and/or inhibit some of the most innovative and effective organizations.

Aid financing can no longer be disconnected from people and place, flowing into a community based on a donor’s imperatives. A new kind of aid donor is courageous enough to put their partners’ needs first and is adaptive to arising needs, inherent complexities, and local realities.

A new kind of aid donor knows that serving their partners’ interests first is what will ultimately fulfill their own.

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And while we’re talking jargon…how about “innovation”?

From yesterday’s “But will this be sustainable?” also comes…

“This project will be innovative.” 

The development aid sector is not lacking in ideas or methods and it’s hardly appropriate to declare one’s self “innovative,” right?

Last year when I found the one-page piece I wrote about a local implementing partner’s monitoring activity for kids in 2004 still being showcased as an “innovative best practice” by a former large aid agency for I used to work (of course by now with someone else’s name on it), I questioned whether or not innovation is even possible in these big ships that are hard to steer.

I don’t want to set the bar low, but maybe, just maybe, doing your work well and making any progress at all in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, (let alone bureaucracies), should be considered innovative in and of itself. Maybe we should look for evidence of innovation not in the latest idea or product as in the private sector, but in the fact that individual and collective reflection processes to identify and overcome obstacles occur, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work.

Moreover, aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation lie? In the scope of action by smaller grassroots groups focused on family and community structures, is there not the potential to draw upon “innovations” for larger programs? Ultimately, where we are looking for innovation and who defines innovation is most important.

What if we can re-conceptualize “innovation” for aid? What if the thing really makes something innovative is not the idea itself, but the learning that made it possible?


Why does jargon matter to people? Perhaps it’s because these words remind us that we’re involved in what @Semhar Araia describes as “intellectual debates over real people’s lives.”

And maybe that’s not such a comfortable place.

I recommend checking out last month’s issue of InterAction’s Monthly Developments, “Frustrated by NGO Jargon?” now online. Among some other really great articles, my piece, “It’s Not YOUR Project: Why possessive adjectives are the most detrimental aid jargon we use” is included on page 16.


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