Dec. 9, 2016

Making the donor-implementer relationship more than a marriage of convenience

To get better at adaptive management, we need to change the nature of the donor-implementer relationship.

Adaptive management icon

Early in my career, I actively sought out positions that would move me from the donor side of aid and development work, to the implementer side, and back again. I felt that I got better at doing both types of work when I moved from one side to the other. I learned the different priorities, language, and expectations, and then was able to apply that understanding in the next job, where I found myself on the other side of the equation.

For those who don’t have the option or opportunity to learn-by-doing in this way, below are some top tips for building the right kind of relationship. But first I want to say, I need to say, that I am no expert… these are just some things that I have learned along the way. Many people who have worked with me know that, even following this advice, I have had my fair share of challenges in dealing with donor-implementer relationships (and heaven knows there are a fair few times I didn’t follow my own advice). But if we are going to get better at adaptive management — and for me the reason to try to be adaptive is to improve programme quality — then we are all going to have to change the nature of our relationships. We need to be working together more, rather than carrying our US-THEM mentality with us everywhere.  

One of my favourite management gurus – Stephen Covey, has a book called The Speed of Trust. And in it, he talks about the core of credibility being: Integrity + Intent + Capability + Results. And it is not a bad formula for donor-implementer relationships. This blog doesn’t have time to dig into the definitions of each, but I think it is an excellent frame for how we should look at ourselves when trying to build the right relationship. (I don’t have to explain that you can only change yourself, not others, right?) This formula asks you to consider, “am I walking the talk, doing what I say I will do?”, “are my motives based on mutual benefit?”, “does my team have the capacity to do this, and if not, what are our options?”, “do we get results at the end of the day, and if we don’t then what happens?” No matter which side of the work you are on, honestly answering these questions will help you think about where you still have work to do.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “our distrust is very expensive” – and I imagine that everyone reading this blog has an example of the truth of that statement. And in our case, it is expensive for taxpayers and the people we are trying to help, as well as our own reputations. Hmmmm… so what can you do?

Here are my tips for building trust on both sides:

1. Talk about expectations and priorities from the very beginning. Learn what is important to the other half (implementer/donor), and make sure the project timelines are set to deliver something against those priorities. Everyone is dealing with politics; you need to help them do that.

2. Respect deadlines. Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it. If you can’t, try to re-negotiate.

3. Meet regularly, in the format that works best for your primary donor contact. Lunch every Monday? Phone call at 5pm every Friday? Whatever it is, a short regular meeting (no matter how busy your schedule) will be worth the time investment on both sides. Donors – in less than an hour you will get the latest news on your projects and look far more on top of things than your colleagues. So make the time. Implementers – you will get to float ideas (especially important for adaptive programmes) and prep your donors for innovations and potential changes. No surprises = more support.

4. Build networks with multiple people in the organisation whenever possible. No one is an expert in everything. Don’t put the leadership (on either side) in the position of needing to seem to know everything. It is a recipe for failure. Use your teams and recognise that multiple voices and perspectives is better in the long run, even when it is messy in the short run.

5. If it isn’t in a report, it didn’t happen. Think about it this way implementers: all a donor really gets for their money is a report. The communities get the shiny new toys. Make your reports awesome, and exactly what the donor needs. (Hint: ask them what they need. It may not be 63 pages of fuzzy photographs of people sitting in a circle.) And give them meaningful data they can use easily and quickly.

6. Your deadlines should relate to their deadlines (please go back and re-read point #1) That awesome report you are now writing needs to go into a report to someone higher up. (Yes, this happens on both sides. Implementers have their own accountability mechanisms.) Try to give them what they need on time, even if it isn’t perfect.

7. Donors, if implementers decide to keep you updated at a higher level than required in the grant, don’t bust our ass if we don’t do it for a week or two. Informal information is not the same as formal information, and you will cut off the informal if you get too demanding.

8. Implementers, be honest about what is going on in the project, even when it is hard.

9. Donors, be honest about when money is really going to be released. Even if the answer is “I don’t know.”

10. Don’t engage in behaviours that encourage micro-management in yourself, your team, or your colleagues. You simply will not get an adaptive programme if you micro-manage.

11. Don’t lie. Don’t tell me the project isn’t facing any major challenges, if there is a big issue. Don’t tell me a portfolio review is just routine, if you actually have some real concerns. We can’t fix what we can’t see.

12. Read the reports. Read the reports. READ the reports.

13. We all live in our own work bubbles... Stay on top of what is going on enough so that you know what the pressures are for the others, and take the pressure off when you can. If you don’t know, ask. Although it can be hard to be fully truthful about what isn’t going right, a good relationship can be built around “having each other’s back.”

14. Think broadly when hiring staff – attitude is everything and can (and frequently does) make or break a donor-implementer relationship. Look for staff who have demonstrated flexibility and creativity in the past. Those who want to be very tightly managed (only doing what their supervisor asks and nothing more) are not going to contribute much to adaptation.

15. Assume competence first. People will live up to your expectations.

16. Finally and most importantly: NEITHER SIDE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE OTHER. Implementers know they can’t do the work without the money, and sometimes without another strong voice in advocacy.  But there are times when donors forget that they need implementers to be their eyes, ears and hands on the ground. We’re all in this together, guys.

So donors and implementers, what did I forget? How have you seen these tips play out (or fail epically) in your experience? I’d love to hear your comments below…  

This blog is part of our series on adaptive management.

1 comment

  • Thanks for your comment Marisa!
    It's so true, collaboration requires a good deal of confidence (or at least not being afraid of people seeing your mistakes). And I think it is so important for leaders to model that and encourage it in others. Good luck with your team, and let us know if you start to see any examples of these tips in action!

    Karri Byrne (4 years, 10 months ago)
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