America, You’re Funny: Why Locals Fail After American Non-Profits Leave

    It is a constant occurrence in the developing world, a non-profit comes in and creates some kind of service: food, medicine, education or building homes. They find locals who are passionate and strong willed. They train these locals in all the basics and advanced techniques of running day to day administration and running the organization. They show them how to find human resources and where and how to spend their limited resources. Everything seems set for them to leave. And yet, a year later… the non-profit falters and falls. 

What happened everyone keeps asking? Money happened.

I briefly went on a trip to Argentina sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Agency to see their work there. JDC is a non-profit started by American Jewish community during World War I which has worked in over 180 countries. They developed medical, job help and education centers all over the world. They helped Haiti after the earthquake, Ethiopia after the famines and Argentina after their financial crisis. Amazing work helping those who are most in need. The best part of their sale is that they come in, work with local organizations and leave after they feel that things are no longer in crisis mode. This year they are departing Ethiopia and Argentina and both countries in spite of all their work, seem to be seriously grappling with the question, what will they do once JDC leaves. In spite of their help to build up local organizations, childcare centers are closing, schools are hammered shut and medical centers will be sitting empty. Because as each case it is not about what happens when JDC personnel leaves, but what will they do once JDC money leaves?

Money, that was the key component that lead me to the epiphany. Most non-profits do little to teach the most important and the most difficult part of the puzzle of the non-profit social good puzzle. The money they spend on projects comes from American donors. To my knowledge they rarely go into the country and find the local donors to create a local base to get donations. They do not school the workers in fundraising, marketing and management. They do not wine and dine local politicians and businessmen and tug on the heartstrings of their wives the way they do at galas in United States. These efforts and events are unseen by the staff on the ground. So once they leave, the non-profits which are well versed in how to run an organization, have no training and no access to the money that the large American administration brought in.

My guess is that the reason lies in the fact that the arm which is on the ground, does not deal with fundraising arm that is doing the work in United States, just spending. So they have no idea how to get money to continue the work and so they cannot train or retain local help.

This is not just that way with JDC. I saw the same thing with Engineers Without Borders. They would find projects in developing countries, find local engineers to work with but fund everything with the money they raised in the states. Sure those countries are poor but I’ve seen flat screen TVs and laptops there, as well as posh malls. I’m sure the work they do can be financed by the local middle class, if we just taught the locals to fund-raise the way we have learned to here in the states.

This is why American Non-Profits, you’re funny. Because if we as Americans truly want to come in to these countries and develop their ability to help themselves and not just  make it about us feeling better about being better off, then we cannot leave out the money part of the non-proffit puzzle.

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