Unlocking the Right Investment in the Social Sector

At the Social Sector Accelerator and CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation we spend a lot of time thinking about how more financial resources can flow to organizations and individuals that are focused on social change.

One of the goals of the Social Sector Accelerator is to increase the flow of social investment that reaches civil society organizations. One conduit of social investment is from grants from foundations. The width of this pipe depends on ability of foundations to identify partners that share their values, vision, and can deliver on the social impact they promise.

Similarly and as articulated in our new 2017-2022 strategy, at CIVICUS we are focused on the changing resourcing landscape and the need for greater equalization of civil society funding between north and south, particularly at the grassroots level.

Most organizations still rely heavily on the expertise of their program officers and formal and informal networks of advisors to give them feedback on potential grantees.

Last year together we reviewed 50 different donors and platforms undertaking ‘partner qualification’ – the process by which they determine whether a nonprofit makes a sound partner.  We have a shared goal - to enhance a network’s  members’ (in this case CIVICUS) access to resources from donors and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), plus find collaborators for their projects and programs. Their theory is that qualification is a precondition to expanding their members’ access to resources.

Through the review process, we culled several lessons about current the practice of qualifying organizations for funding – and have identified an important gap that needs filling.

First, the gap is not around the basics of qualification.  Every platform or donor we reviewed relies on one of three things to aid them in basic qualification -

  1. an external database or registry,
  2. an external service or
  3. documentation of legal registration and matching bank account information provided by their grantees.

This includes the United States  Internal Revenue Services registry of organizations with tax exempt status or third-party services which issue equivalency determination letters (certifying non-US organizations as equivalent to a US-based tax exempt organization). Similar tax exemption models are emulated in other countries, as well.

But beyond basic verification of an organization’s status (such as tax exemption or banking status), few donors or platforms have automated the more substantial parts of their partner qualification process. This is still a largely manual process – as described below- and limits their ability to gain efficiencies, qualify more partners, or help applicants learn through the application process. 

Two platforms – DonorsChoose and Global Giving – are exceptions: they have rapid verification processes supported by technology that enable them to dig deeper into a potential partner’s values, impact, or alignment to a donor’s funding priorities.  DonorsChoose has gone the furthest in capturing and using data to increase automation of the qualification process. They are qualifying over 350k grants per year on their platform and they expect to double the number of projects on their platform in 2017. Global Giving has built a robust system and uses Amazon Turk to streamline one aspect of their process.  Using Amazon Turk they turns components of their process into micro tasks which can be outsourced to reviewers around the world at a fraction of the cost thus freeing up their grants officers to focus on verifying the fit of organizations with their values and gaining insights into impact.

What are the other platforms using?  One group crowd-sources input – relying on users to flag organizations using the platform who do not meet minimum requirements. This is similar to how Facebook relies on users to report organizations or posts that do not adhere to their terms of service. Another, NGO Source, has created a service for grant makers to verify that organizations are equivalent to a US 501c3. This solves one part of the qualification challenge but doesn’t go far enough. And in some ways it goes in a direction that’s not most pertinent to organizations who are not necessarily operating according to US tax compliance frameworks, and never need to. With the rise of global philanthropy, US tax equivalency is but one dimension of qualification.

Most other platforms we reviewed rely on a basic technology infrastructure and the human resources in their grants and programs offices. Most organizations still rely heavily on the expertise of their program officers and formal and informal networks of advisors to give them feedback on potential grantees. Others have formed consortiums that allow them to tap into the networks of consortium members. In some cases these human powered processes can take up to 18 months to qualify a new partner. Those who move faster do so by limiting the number of potential grantees qualified.

Overall, we have identified a solution that deserves attention – using business intelligence tools and technologies to gather and share information on organizations applying for funding. We believe this can go further than all of the approaches above to unclog the qualification bottleneck and increase the number and diversity of groups who receive funding.

How can a business intelligence approach improve qualification? It allows five things to change:

  1. Move beyond reliance on legal registration and bank account documentation - given the politicization of civil society in some parts of the world we have to move beyond reliance on registration and bank account confirmation. In some countries, it takes months if not years and thousands of dollars to register, receive tax benefit status and secure a bank account. For some groups registration is impossible because of the type of work they do.  How else might we satisfy ourselves that an organization is doing what it says and will spend the funds we give them in a way that matches our expectations? There are approaches to gathering business intelligence information used by the private sector to manage risk that helps them understand their supply chain partners. What information could we gather from publicly available data sets such as those now available because of IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative)? What information is available via social media platforms about organizations and their work? What does their Twitter feed say about them? Could we decentralize and place more money in local institutions to regrant? Many national organizations have a greater knowledge of which organizations are legitimate? Could we loosen our requirements to give to organizations and give to individuals?
  2. Take advantage of shared data to aid rapid qualification - could we take better advantage of shared resources such as the Bridge Registry? The Registry, a partnership between GlobalGiving, TechSoup, Foundation Center and Guidestar, assigns numbers to organizations that have been vetted by consortium members and allows others to see which organizations have been vetted by which consortium member.  For example, Counterpart International, the Accelerator’s parent organization, has been vetted by Guidestar, Foundation Center and TechSoup. Bridge numbers could form the backbone of a decentralized system that other organizations use to create, maintain and share organizational records. Using newly available data from grantmakers on their grantees we could collect and analyze existing investments in organization and use that as a basis for qualification. For example, if 5 foundations have already made grants to an organization what additional questions might we ask to satisfy ourselves that this is a qualified group? How might we place greater emphasis on values and impact while also automating some of the analysis?
  3. Improve our data collection to gain insights - How might we mine our grantmaking data to improve the qualification process?  DonorsChoose is using Looker to capture data from ‘no’ answers to applications so they can more quickly give teachers feedback on what part of their application did not meet their criteria and provide them supports to reapply successfully.  Ashoka has taken a community based approach to address this same issue.  Applicants to their ‘Challenges’ who are not successful have access to the community of all applicants - including winners - who help coach them to a successful application. 80% of those who were unsuccessful in the first round are successful in the second round. How might grant makers mine the data from thousands of their ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions to improve the quality of applications they receive and support grantees to develop successful applications? What if they shared information on their yes and no decisions across their organizations? Michelle Granias, CEO of Peak Grantmaking, predicted the move towards this new operating model in 2015 in her article Predictions and Possibilities; Grants Management in 2025
  4. Lessen the repeat burden on CSOs – Could we ‘de-risk’ donor investments and help to rebalance the power dynamics between donor and grantee by lessening the burden on grantees? We could create an online briefcase or profile that any organization around the world could use to store their relevant documents and begin to build out their organizational record with reviews from donors, staff, beneficiaries, partners. This moves beyond the Guidestar profiles to a credit report for civil society organizations. While new organizations might begin with a thin file based largely on the reputation and relationships of their founders, board and staff they could build their ‘trust credits’ over time. Donors of all types could use this profile as a starting point when determining the organizations match and qualifications to receive funds. Non profits would save time repeatedly submitting the same documents and focus more on demonstrating value and impact and accessing investment.
  5. Develop new lean approaches to getting at values and impact, and scale- everyone we interviewed was dissatisfied with the current approaches to understanding the values of the organizations they were funding and approaches to understanding the impact the organizations were realizing.  Some organizations such as Charity Navigator are well on their way to providing a standard for governance and financial values. Other organizations such as GiveWell have developed strong approaches to getting at impact but their efforts are largely confined to the health sector and because of the cost and length of time required for their process they can qualify a limited number of organizations in a year. At the very least we could be asking groups to describe the ways they are measuring impact of their work, what impact measures they are tracking and how they are/are not adjusting their approaches based on what they are learning about their impact.

Better use of technology is only part of the answer and still does not address the challenge of getting funds to newer, smaller, less well resourced organizations. We believe every platform or donor should implement a diversity policy or fund whose aim is to get more organizations ‘investment ready’. The most recent complete statistics from the Foundation Center are available for 2013. In 2013, US foundations made almost $6.4 bil in grants for international causes with $2.5 bil to organizations outside the United States. 44.8% went to organizations in Western Europe leaving just 55.2% for the rest of the world. Only $185 mil or 7.4% went to neighbors in Central and South America. How much more money and how many more organizations could receive funds if we could make the system more efficient, equitable and accessible? How much greater impact could be realized by the philanthropic community?

While DonorsChoose could spend more of their time and money automating more and more of their process they will always prioritize staff time spent getting underserved schools and school district successfully using the platform and securing donations. The Ashoka ‘re-application’ pool is one way to lessen the burden on applicants and improve the quality of applications. Providing other donors access to ‘rejected’ proposals is another way – an application that wasn’t successful to Macarthur Foundation’s challenge might be a great application for another donor with different criteria or priorities. More foundations and funding platforms should be asking themselves how they could be getting more of their grant funds out to grantees in a way that lessens the burden on organizations and diversifies their pool of potential grant recipients.  Shared solutions for the sector and better utilization of tech enabled partner qualification are two possible ways.

As a follow on to this research we are working together  to improve grant making capacity and together we are experimenting with new approaches to qualify partners for grants. In the next few months we will be learning out loud through that process and sharing additional blog posts about our efforts.

*This blog was co-written by Teresa Crawford (@capdividend) at the Accelerator and Alex Sardar (@alexsardar) at CIVICUS

How will we know what kinds of investment in organizational strengthening lead to increased mission impact?

In 2016 we supported community leaders in Zambia to organize a series of community-government dialogue forums to surface issues and advocate for improved health and education services. Our team supported community leaders to conduct citizen outreach and formulate shared concerns. The dialogue led to the provision of new and more accessible health services.

What I love about this story is that it speaks to both our values and the effectiveness of an approach based on the empowerment of local leaders. In 51 years of working to ensure that citizens have a voice in the decisions that impact their lives, Counterpart’s approach has always reflected our belief that those living in a community are the ones best positioned to create meaningful, lasting social change. We also recognize, though, that while local leaders have the best ideas for bringing about change, they do not always have the tools, resources or relationships they need to be successful. This is why our mission is to help other organizations achieve theirs. We’ve built an organization dedicated to helping others strengthen their organizations, build networks of allies, and broaden their funding sources. Community leaders in Zambia knew better than we did how to solve their healthcare access challenges; we just helped them smooth the road so they could get there more quickly.

We believe this sort of “capacity building” is one of the most important things donors, foundations, other philanthropists, and global development organizations like ours can do to help our partners around the world bring about meaningful and lasting change. But over the last few years, we’ve increasingly been asking ourselves how to prove the value of this sort of support to convince others to join us in this work. How can we demonstrate that organizations we work with are actually stronger as a result of our partnership with them? What metrics can help us learn what approaches achieve the outcomes we seek?  What impact does our support have on their social impact? How are the communities where they work benefiting?

In 2015  we took a deeper look at our own data and developed a “Scorecard” for partners who had received capacity building support from us. From 11 countries 123 partners responded, and of those organizations Counterpart worked directly with (versus an affiliate partner), 63% noted that they saw increases in all four areas we view as important to gauging our impact: the number of beneficiaries served, the number of services offered to beneficiaries, annual revenues and the number of funding sources.

While 63% noted that they saw increases in all four areas we view as important to gauging our capacity building impact: the number of beneficiaries served, the number of services offered to beneficiaries, annual revenues and the number of funding sources. While these were promising results, we were left wondering, what about the other 37%?  How could we improve our approach so that all of our partners report similar success? 

While these were promising results, we were left wondering, what about the other 37%?  How could we improve our approach so that all of our partners report similar success? How could we expand the survey to get beyond the question of just whether our partners themselves are doing better after working with us, but that their communities are also benefiting from our support?

To take on these questions and improve our practice, in 2016, the Social Sector Accelerator, a wholly owned subsidiary of Counterpart, launched the “Capacity Dividend” learning partnership and worked with IO Sustainability (best known for their work on Project ROI) to study the “Capacity Dividend” – the increased value created for foundations and organizations and their beneficiaries because of capacity building support. The Accelerator decided to look beyond Counterpart to see, first, what our colleagues  in academia had to say, and, second, how our peers were measuring or thinking about their capacity building efforts.

While the existing research did a good job of describing a range of organizational strengthening initiatives and dug deeper into approaches surprisingly, we found little in the way of concrete insights or guidance from the academic research.

With our peers, it was a different and welcomed story.  Many of the most dynamic thinkers in our field were asking many of the same questions we were. In conversations the Accelerator had with 11 key foundation thought leaders from Ford Foundation, David and Lucille Packard Foundation, S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and others, we found people equally passionate about moving the field forward by engaging in discussions of impact both for organizations and their missions. Packard found through surveys of their grantees that their capacity building efforts were having a “significant” or “transformational” and measurable impact for two-thirds of their grantees and were wondering how they could reach the other third. Ford Foundation launched the $1billion BUILD program in 2016, testing out a new investment and cohort model of capacity building. Lori Grange from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has developed some interesting insights into the conditions under which support for organizational effectiveness can be successful.

Each of these are important steps forward because in addition to providing useful insight into strategies for building stronger organizations as a valuable goal these leading organizations are also interested in learning how capacity building contributes to greater impact for the communities their grantee partners serve. This is critical because we seem to be at a key juncture. On the one hand foundations are increasingly seeing the value of capacity building support; on the other hand, we can’t ignore the skepticism or impatience many others have with this type of support. Anyone who works in this space has encountered eye rolls at the mention of “capacity building”, a term that suffers from sounding stale and lacking in meaning.

All of this points to the importance of evidence and data, but what should a learning agenda look like? The following questions emerged from our discussions:

  • How might foundations structure organizational strengthening initiatives to return the greatest results?
  • What is possible with a grantee-centered approach with a focus on organizational strengthening that focuses on the abilities needed to achieve a clearly defined mission?
  • What might change if foundations place organizational strengthening in the context of the larger system the groups are trying to change/effect/work within? Are there different strengths to be built for different organizations within the system? ? 
  • How might we measure the impact of organizational strengthening support on organizations and their ability to achieve their missions? What do we measure?
  • How might we determine “predictive indicators of success” – a small number of predictive indicators that allow quick analysis of whether organizations need additional strengthening to be effective?

We’re not only asking these questions to improve our own work, but also to move the field forward with a deeper understanding of the Capacity Dividend. As one of our peers explained in our conversations, nonprofit executives need their funders to move from prodding them with whatever is de jour in SSIR to providing them with evidenced based support that will help them do their work better.

*Stay tuned over the next few weeks for our announcement of a Organizational Strengthening Design workshop planned for February 2018 where we will put some of this learning to the test.

Constructing an Impactful Organizational Strengthening Program

Over the past few years, foundations of all types have embraced “capacity building” for their grantees as a core part of their strategy for generating social impact. Their strategies include providing a range of supports for their grantee partners from add-ons to existing program grants to larger scale organizational strengthening programs. What these foundations all have in common is a belief in something we call a “capacity dividend”: the notion that investments in their grantee partners’ capacity offers “returns” in the form of greater efficiency, effectiveness, and ultimately greater social impact.

But how does this understanding of the power of ‘capacity building’ change for foundations that have an outsized influence in their community? Does being the primary funder in a particular domain or location come with special responsibilities? Should this dynamic change a foundation’s investment strategy?

“Capacity building is “the funding and technical assistance to help nonprofits increase specific capacities to deliver stronger programs, take risks, build connections, innovate and iterate.”

— Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

The Accelerator team is working with the Paso del Norte Health Foundation of El Paso, Texas to develop options for them to expand the already robust capacity building they offer the nonprofit community in their region to include support for staff at all levels. Their hope is that by reaching deeper into the nonprofits they support, the services those organizations offer will have a greater impact in the community and will be less vulnerable to the disruption that can occur when leaders transition. What’s remarkable about PdNHF’s approach, however, is that with each iteration of their capacity building program they have sought to provide value for the broader nonprofit community– extending their reach beyond merely their own grantees to be major players in cultivating a robust community of dynamic nonprofits in their region.

PdNHF operates in a challenging context: El Paso once struggled with “brain drain” as young people left the region seeking different and better paying jobs. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the city of El Paso had the highest rate of domestic migration in the United States. This trend appears to now be slowing, but has been a challenge for leaders of all types of organizations – perhaps especially for nonprofit organizations, a group typically reliant on people with deep connections to their community. Furthermore, the region lacks much of the nonprofit support infrastructure that exist in other cities. There was once a vibrant Nonprofit Enterprise Center that provided training and other resources to nonprofits in the region, but it faced some struggles of its own and is now gone. There used to be a consulting group made up of some of El Paso’s most dynamic nonprofit leaders, but that group has been dormant for some time as each of its members took on new leadership roles in the nonprofit community. Add to that dynamic that PdNHF is one of a handful of large-scale donors in the region and the challenge facing the Foundation becomes clear.

Fortunately for the region, PdNHF recognizes these challenges and has demonstrated its commitment to playing a major part in providing nonprofit leaders and their teams the support and resources they need to best serve their communities. As they do this, we’re working closely with PdNHF to define the impact the foundation and their partners hope to achieve and tailoring the capacity building program to help them achieve those goals. With their capacity building support, they aim to help grantees become more adaptable, design and implement stronger, evidence-informed programs, and develop and maintain strong internal structures and culture.

We believe PdNHF can best support their grantee partners and the development of the broader non-profit sector by implementing a program that is underpinned by two primary considerations. The first is to prioritize catalytic investments in the organizations whose missions and activities most closely align to PdNHF’s goals. PdNHF’s goal is to lead, fund, promote and leverage opportunities to assure that all people in its service region achieve good health. This is an important goal, and urgent in a region with, for example, a diabetes rate 27 percent higher than the national average. Thus, the value of investing in the strength of organizations with a high degree of alignment with PdNHF’s strategy to improve regional health is clear.

At the same time, however, PdNHF recognizes the challenges the nonprofit community as a whole is facing, and that strong nonprofits of all types are critical for the overall well-being of folks in their region.  So together with PdNHF, we’ve co-designed strategies for simultaneously supporting these organizations and strengthening the region’s nonprofit support infrastructure. To do this while not becoming distracted from their primary mission is the trick, though, so we’ve developed strategies designed to create efficiencies and leverage the support going to their core organizations. When a consultant is flown in to work intensively with a PdNHF grantee on developing evidence-informed programming, that same consultant may also offer a workshop on Lean Data during their time in El Paso that is open to all nonprofits, and a separate, private training for local consultants so that they can continue to offer support on an ongoing basis.

Much has been made about major foundations that are dedicating increasing resources to capacity building. Ford Foundation, for instance, recently launched the BUILD program, which will provide approximately $200 million a year for organizational strengthening efforts, in addition to including at least 20 percent overhead funding in every project they fund. Packard Foundation has invested over $150 million in almost 3,000 organizational effectiveness grants to their grantee partners.  While those foundations certainly deserve the applause they are receiving, we are hopeful that they are part of a bigger trend that includes everyone from large international grant makers to smaller place-based foundations, like PdNHF. We’ve taken great inspiration from our work with the folks at PdNHF, and hope others do too.


Building a Capacity Building Program with a Purpose

The Accelerator team has spent the last several months working with the staff of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to explore options for a foundation supported program to support their grantee partners in the El Paso region.

We are spending the week with foundation and partner staff to explore the challenges and opportunities to building organizations that can weather changes in their operating environment. In what ways can increased capacities and capabilities deliver improved health outcomes in their communities? What key capacities do they need to be more resilient? How can they improve their impact through increased use of data and experimentation?

Using design thinking approaches we are helping grantee staff identify their key staff knowledge, skills and capability needs. Using 'What's on Your Radar' with a range of organizations and staff is helping us identify areas of shared need and opportunities for collaborative skill building.

Prioritizing key knowledge, skills, capabilities that would improve their impact

Prioritizing key knowledge, skills, capabilities that would improve their impact

We built a Capacity Building Strategy Game to help foundation staff achieve alignment around the Purpose of the support they want to provide, the range of Activities or ways they might go about achieving that purpose and the Impacts they would like to see achieved. Will there be agreement between what the foundation thinks the purpose should be and what their grantee partners think? In what areas is there agreement and in what areas is their divergence?

Coming to agreement on Purpose, Activities and Impacts with Paso del Norte Health Foundation

Coming to agreement on Purpose, Activities and Impacts with Paso del Norte Health Foundation

Our work with Paso del Norte Health Foundation is part of our work promoting, understanding and developing the 'Capacity Dividend'. How much greater impact could an organization have if they and their funding partner invested in increasing their capacity and capabilities? What skills and capacities are needed to create a region driven by the power of healthy living?

Measuring the Capacity Dividend

One of the values that underpins the work of the Accelerator is placing a priority on evidence. If we are going to invest in something we want to have a sense of how much impact it will have. We also want to consider if an alternative investment would pay off in a bigger way.

In 2014 , our parent organization, Counterpart, embarked on a journey to improve their understanding of the impacts of the organizational strengthening services and coaching they provide to nonprofits around the world. In any given year Counterpart's teams in 30 countries are coaching upwards of 2,500 organizations who range from informal community based groups to some of the leading non-governmental organizations in their countries. 

Counterpart wanted to know, is it possible to effectively measure the impact such "capacity building" services have? Do these services truly lead to a "Capacity Dividend" - accelerating nonprofits' ability to pursue their purpose? If so, what approaches lead to the greatest impact and under what conditions? 

To get at these questions Counterpart conducts a biennial survey with the organizations it has provided services. While the data these surveys has generated supports the notion that capacity building is a smart business decision, it is not enough to truly evaluate impact. In addition to strengthening its own internal learning capacity and gathering regular feedback from the groups they support, Counterpart tasked us in the Social Sector Accelerator - Counterpart's innovation arm - to "learn out loud" with our peer intermediaries and foundations in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations community.  

As a first step we partnered with IO Sustainability last year to conduct a landscape analysis of existing research on the impacts of capacity building on organizational strength and social impact. We reviewed research from nearly 60 academic, think-tank, and thought leader sources published after 1990. We also interviewed 11 leading practitioners from both grant-makers and capacity building service providers. The research was not limited to those sources that explicitly reference "capacity building," but also included any materials related to strategies for strengthening non-profit organizations. As part of the research we held formal and informal discussions at the 2016 GEO Conference and at Opportunity Collaboration. We held a brownbag in DC and a webinar with GEO members.

Questions from GEO Members: Where do funders pull their data from - anecdotal evidence or standards?

Questions from GEO Members: Where do funders pull their data from - anecdotal evidence or standards?

What we've learned is that the existing research, both anecdotally and qualitatively, largely supports the notion that organizations that receive capacity building support can achieve greater social impact. Beyond organizational strengthening, five studies provided findings on the social impact of capacity building. In four of the studies, these outcomes are not quantified. Instead the studies make an assumption that if organizations report improved effectiveness, then it is likely that they have enhanced their mission-related impacts. The fifth study looked at capacity building for Australian nonprofits working on improving farming and agricultural processes, where the goal of the interventions was to improve their R&D capacity. The results, over a three-year period, estimated $150M in economic and social benefits vs. $20M in capacity building program costs. These studies provide promising insights into how we might structure programs to better measure both organizational strengthen and mission impacts.

Unfortunately, on the whole, the review unearthed a lack of robust empirical research linking capacity building support with improvements in measures of organizational effectiveness, and even less research linking capacity building with greater social impact. We know Counterpart and other donors, foundations and non-profits need stronger evidence that investments in capacity building - instead of or in addition to - other forms of support pays off.

The landscape analysis suggests that the question is not whether certain types of capacity building are better or worse than others. Rather, the question grant-makers and nonprofits should ask is what kinds of capacity building will achieve the desired outcomes and optimize mission-related impacts.

We are taking what we've learned and applying it to our work. Next month we are starting work developing capacity building program options for a healthcare foundation. Each program option will include suggestions for how the foundation and their grantees can generate evidence of both organizational and mission impacts. We are also thinking about new ways to systematically measure the impact of our own capacity building efforts. More on this to come, but let's just say it has something to do with comparing ourselves to cash.

In the spirit of sharing you can find more on our Capacity Dividend research here:

If you will be at the GEO Funders Learning conference in Chicago in May and want to geek out over organizational strengthening and impact let me know.


WeWork Creator Awards - what we love and hate about grant competitions

Two weeks ago we submitted an application for the WeWork Creator Awards. A week later we found out we had not advanced to the second round of the competition. Competing in the award competition was a reminder to us of all the things we love and hate about grant competitions like the Creator Awards.

On March 9th, 2017, WeWork, the global cooperative workspace company, announced the WeWork Creator Awards competition.  This $20 million grants competition was open to start-ups in 5 countries where WeWork has a presence. We heard about the competition from one of our Board members and without hesitation decided to apply. The decision was easy for 3 reasons - 1) the barriers to entry were low, 2) we already had a well-defined sense of purpose and 3) we had concrete plans for how we would scale our work with additional funds - as anyone in the nonprofit space knows, this kind of unrestricted capital is the lifeblood of a growing, learning organization. 

Things we loved about the competition -

  1. Super quick turn around - we had a week to put together our application, make a video and click submit.
  2. Simple application process with low barriers to entry - the greatest single expense, besides our time, was the production of a high quality video. We didn't have to invest that much in a video but we knew that even if we didn't win we could make good use of the video to promote our work.
  3. Open ended questions which left us room to be creative.

Things we'd like to see done differently in the future -

  1. The benefits of an open-ended approach have their limits. It was not clear what WeWork is looking for from applicants and what their selection criteria was. In a world where startups are constantly searching and competing for funding, its useful if potential funders provide some signals of what they are looking for so that organizations can make a considered decision about which opportunities to pursue - every pursuit comes with opportunity costs. Heck - we don't even know who judged the first round applications.
  2. Once we didn’t get selected our application went into the WeWork black hole - no one knew we had applied except for WeWork and us, meaning no one could browse the applications to see if they wanted to invest. Today's cutting edge donors and investors know that while they can't support every startup that comes along, they can play a roll in lifting all boats in their ecosystem by providing a platform to promote even those ideas they don't support. 
  3. We received no feedback on our application - what was it about our pitch or our mission that didn’t fit their vision? This is another area where funders can lower the costs young organizations take on when applying - at least if we get some feedback we can grow from our failure. 

We are making lemonade out of these lemons. We now have a much clearer value proposition, we put up this new website, and we have a new video which showcases our organization, our mission and what we have to offer. We've run these type of competitions ourselves in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo and now we have even greater empathy for the applicants who put in hard work but don't advance beyond the application stage. How might we help them make more lemonade out of their own lemons? How might we be clearer in our expectations and the criteria for our decisions? How might we provide a platform to showcase all the possible solutions - even the ones we did not fund? What feedback could we provide that increases their chances of success in their next competition or pitch?

After our WeWork adventure we are checking out how others run their competitions and reading more on the underlying theories behind prize competitions - the evidence that they spur innovation and contribute to development outcomes. The team at Ashoka addresses some of the challenges we highlighted in the WeWork competition - check out how their challenges work. The folks over at mWater have a few ideas for how we might move beyond prizes, hackathons and contests and last year SSIR published an article on Rethinking Business Plan Competitions. Maybe we could dispense with all the mentoring, coaching, networking in competitions and just give away cash.



Community Members at the Forefront of Sustainable Coastal Communities

This blog post was previously published on the Counterpart International blog.

The Social Sector Accelerator works with and through organizations, companies and both local and national government in the Dominican Republic to build resilient coastal communities - improving their ability to weather increasing storm intensity and rising sea levels.

The Arrozero's of Monte Cristi, Agrofrontera and the Social Sector Accelerator team.

The Arrozero's of Monte Cristi, Agrofrontera and the Social Sector Accelerator team.


AgroFrontera, a local nonprofit in the Dominican Republic has organized fishermen into association groups that understand their role in environmental stewardship and are committed to fishing responsibly.

Watch the video here. 

With its motor cut off, the fishing boat rocks back and forth with the steel-blue waves of the Atlantic. Not far from the shores of the Dominican Republic’s Montecristi National Park, the water here is still slightly turbid. The bright limbs of the legging-clad fishermen are only visible for a moment after they pitch gracefully overboard in pursuit of a prey that until recently, most of them doggedly avoided.

Frederick Payton is the Executive Director of AgroFrontera, a nonprofit organization based in Montecristi which, in partnership with Counterpart International, works with communities to sustainably develop their food and farming systems.

His sun-filled job description might sound like a dream to other, suit-bound executives: Payton spends a lot of time with rice growers and fishermen in the lush paddies and beaches of a country that is recognized by most as a travel destination.

But the full scope of his work with AgroFrontera is no vacation. Payton and his staff are trying to turn around farming and fishing practices that have had grave environmental impacts on Montecristi, while simultaneously creating value chains that will improve people’s livelihoods enough to make conservation worth their efforts.

Striving to fish responsibly  

The invasive lionfish is the target of one such environmental and economic venture. Its vivid brown and white stripes and brilliantly dotted diaphanous fins are crowned with poisonous spindles that, until now, kept fishermen away.

That meant it had ample time to ravenously devour other juvenile fish species while reproducing prolifically. With no natural enemies in the Caribbean, lionfish pose a real threat to the survival of coral reefs and fisheries.

AgroFrontera recognized the dual benefit to fishermen and the ecosystem of catching more lionfish. And Payton knew any project that helped one but not the other would be unsustainable.

“Any program, any technology that you bring to these coastal communities with low-income fishermen and their families has to be based in an opportunity in a market,” he says.

The organization is working with restaurants, hotels and supermarkets in Montecristi to start selling the fish, which he says has a nice subtle flavor and is easy to fillet. It educates fishermen on maintaining a cold chain to make it more valuable as they take the beautiful carnivore from ocean to entrée.

And it has organized fishermen into associations—groups that understand their role in environmental stewardship and are committed to fishing responsibly.

Ariel Polanco is a fisherman and President of the Buen Hombre Association. Ariel and the other members of his group have joined to conserve and protect marine species. © Counterpart International.

Fishermen here have been over-fishing in the past. Around sixty percent of people in communities like Buen Hombre depend directly on fishing for a living, and destructive methods were used to maximize their catch, without concern for the overall health of the fisheries.

Some fishermen used water snares and gill nets that caught hundreds of young fish. They even poured poison in the mangroves and inland waterways, waiting for the dead fish to float up.

“We carried out a biological study two years ago in Manzanillo and the results were surprising,” says AgroFrontera employee Cesar Rafael Garcia. “No species were seen in the area.”

AgroFrontera taught the fisherman about more responsible methods, and worked with them to divide their fishing area into zones they could manage and protect. They provided equipment like fish aggregating devices that allow for line fishing of bigger, more valuable species like tuna and red snapper whose catch doesn’t damage the reef.

The Buen Hombre fishing association has twenty members, the one in Manzanillo, fifty.

“Our goal is, mainly, to protect and purchase equipment so that our members can fish with greater ease, and increase their catch, but they must always respect Mother Nature,” says Manzanillo association president Rogel Antonio Rivera Cabrera.

“After we started to fight against illegal fishing, the increase of fish species was remarkable,” Cabrera says. “I came here with my son, carrying a flashlight and—this is unbelievable, my friend—we caught around 100 pounds of fish. Their size was the right one for fishing.”

With results like this, even accounting for a bit of fisherman’s exaggeration, association members are optimistic that others in their community will get on board.

“I think they’re starting to see the economic benefit in… [fishing] in a more sustainable manner,” says Jesse McCarter, a Peace Corps volunteer who lives and works in Buen Hombre. “By providing a better catch for them and better means to catch high-quality fish, it’s helping them kind of create their own power within the community.”

AgroFrontera is educating farmers on concepts of water and pest management that reduce waste and chemicals.

Teaming up for lasting change

Creating community associations with the power to make positive changes for members and the environment was a tactic that worked just as well on land. Concerned with the whole watershed of Montecristi, Payton and his staff also work with the area farmers whose methods affect what ends up in the mangroves and bay.

They presented concepts of water and pest management that reduce waste and chemicals, and suggested alternatives to rinsing and disposing of pesticide containers in waterways. Farmers who work with AgroFrontera are using less than half the chemical products of those who are not affiliated with the program.

They also educated farmers about how to determine which type of fertilizer their soil needs, how much to apply and when. They also introduced a System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which allows farmers to use new varieties and spacing techniques that can result in a higher yield and better quality.

“For the past crop cycle, we have lowered production costs by 1,200 pesos per tarea (628 square meters),” says AgroFrontera agronomist Leoncio Pimentel. “Those 1,200 pesos per tarea correspond to direct savings for the farmer. This is the reason why they accept the methods of Agrofrontera.”

The economic gain is clear to farmers. But the environmental benefit of these new methods is becoming just as obvious. For the first time in years, residents in the communities near Montecristi are seeing the return of fish and crabs to lakes and streams that were once toxic.

“I was surprised on a plot of mine, as I was walking beside a pipe,” says rice farmer Ramón Antonio Román. “I saw the other day that some fish came out. I was amazed and I was surprised, because we didn’t use to see fish. Now the fish do come.”

Juan Alexander Rivas Rosario fishes for fun at Lake Utakata, a quiet, reedy lagoon that sits at the center of the micro-basin’s natural drainage systems.

Contamination had resulted in what Pimentel describes as the “total mortality” of its marine life despite the reliance of surrounding communities on the fish that used to populate it.

“We had stopped coming here for a while because there were no fish in the lakes due to contamination from products,” says Rivas. Now, things are different. “We can catch a lot of fish, compared to before.”

“We used to come here and leave with an empty bucket, without any fish. Now,” he says, holding out a bucket full of his fresh shiny catch, “you can see the results .”

Dusting off our HTML skills

I created my first website over 20 years ago.  I worked for a small organization, The Advocacy Project, helping human rights and advocacy organizations around the world make better use of information and information technology in their work. My first websites were based on HTML I would pirate from other sites by copying the source code and tweaking the layout for courageous activists working to end violence against women in war, ensure economic rewards for indigenous groups whose lands were rich with oil, secure rights for persons living with disabilities.

And now we are creating the first site for the Social Sector Accelerator, a start up launched in 2015, to rethink and redesign international development and support for civil society organizations. We are constantly reading, meeting new people and we will share what we are learning, thinking, designing and how we are helping individuals, organizations and networks to achieve their missions. We focus on their purpose and the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to secure that purpose and achieve impact.