At Kanava International, local organizations are viewed as “partners” with whom we work with to build their capacity for sustainability over the long haul. We focus on partnering with local organizations to provide them with the tools, methodologies, and processes so that they can develop systems and plans that they “own” and are meaningful to them, rather than only to satisfy a donor’s requirements. In this way, they become better prepared and empowered to meet future challenges, stressing management capabilities, a critical component to support their technical work to provide essential services to their communities.

Kanava currently works with local organizations under a USAID/Cambodia funded project, and recently facilitated a four-day DFID funded resource mobilization workshop for a government entity in Sri Lanka. Under both of these projects, Kanava presented the theory behind management tools, such as strategic planning and resource mobilization planning, which worked on exercises to emphasize the processes, and provided coaching on specifics to develop these plans.

Kanava is part of a paradigm shift that is occurring among international development consultants and aid recipients alike, as the community promotes global economic development to alleviate poverty and promote peace and stability. This shift includes matching action to words by providing tools to empower local organizations to take charge of their destiny, rather than continuing to hold the purse strings and direct the activities of these organizations. Currently, there are systemic challenges that drag on local capacity building. For example, often donors only allow local organizations to “charge” a minimal amount for overhead, leading to a continued reliance on donor funding and negatively impacting their ability to be sustainable. It is not surprising that local organizations still think of their budget planning only in terms of assistance from donors, limiting their ability to grow and become self-sufficient.

This is evident, for example, in civil society organizations in Cambodia. With so many local organizations competing for limited funding, the ones that will have a better chance at sustainability are focusing on knowing where they are now and where they want to go in the future, taking advantage of the environment in which they work to leverage resources. As official development assistance funds shrink and remittances and private sector funding grow, these organizations increasingly need to develop strategic ways to diversify their funding sources, to attract sufficient funding based on a long range vision for their organizations, and to move beyond living hand to mouth from one project to the next.

Useful management tools, such as strategic plans and resource mobilization plans, can help local organizations build their capacity and sustainability, but how institutional development practitioners work with local organizations on these tools is key. Currently, many Cambodian non-government organizations (NGOs) have or want to develop strategic plans, not necessarily because they recognize the value in them to their long-term growth and empowerment, but because donors request them. For these NGOs, the development of their strategic plans can be daunting – sometimes they develop it on their own, sometimes with the help of an expat consultant or volunteer, or sometimes a consultant develops it for them. They often have little or no training on what should be included and why, and how it should be developed. Additionally, different donors may mandate different requirements, adding confusion and workload to the NGOs. Most donors also want to see the strategic plans in English – but translating concepts from Khmer to English is problematic and can rob the NGO of feeling ownership over the plan. Instead of being viewed as a useful management tool, it is reduced to a requirement imposed by the donor before it provides assistance.

Instead, by providing them with the methodology and process, as well as individual coaching, they are empowered to take ownership of the planning process, looking at it from an organizational standpoint, rather than for a specific project for a specific donor. This better positions them to seek funding from a variety of sources, not just one donor.

The current situation leads to another issue regarding their funding sources. Frequently, they have one or two projects that are funded for a period time, oftentimes for less than two years, but sometimes this funding may not even be in their core area. For example, over the course of periodic trips during a two-year period, some Cambodian NGOs have shifted from being an HIV/AIDS organization to suddenly doing agriculture or livelihoods as a result of the funding they received. Did they plan to branch into new/different areas, or was it the only funding available to them so they went after it?

Instead, we should be assisting these organizations to develop strategic plans focused on their current core areas, where they want to be in five years, and how they will get there. The “how” is critical. Their strategic plan should plot out not only where they want to be in five years, but also approximately how much it will cost to achieve. They will then be able to determine their financial gap, and work towards obtaining funding to fill the gap – they will be driving the process, not the donors. In this way, they are looking at an organizational budget, which will help propel them to sustainability.

Developing an organizational budget brings us to a discussion of resource mobilization and diversification of funding sources. While many may assume that diversification of funding means looking for other donors, in fact, a Johns-Hopkins study of CSOs worldwide showed that fee-for services activities actually provide the majority of their funding. This raises the question of how NGOs can start to sell current services they are offering, develop new services to sell, and think about how to find new sources of funding, such as through shared value/corporate social responsibility, from the private sector?

So donors can require local organizations to produce their strategic plans. But to be meaningful to the organization, any plans produced must be “owned” by the organization itself. As external consultants, we should walk them through the process of developing a plan, suggest language to help them articulate their plans, but at the end of the day, if outsiders do the planning and writing for them, it may be a document created for the international development community, not a viable management tool for the organization itself to use. If we really want to support local organizations to be sustainable, we must provide them with the tools and environment to do so.