One of the more complex nuances of working across different countries and cultures is storytelling and communication. When done poorly, organizations run several risks: from dehumanizing the people they seek to help to diminishing the role local actors play in advancing progress. In this post, CEO Scott Sabin shares how to allow our partners to tell their stories in their own voice.
One of the most important ideas anchoring Plant With Purpose is that the people we serve are our partners, not our projects.
Most of us are familiar with our own sense of queasiness when we realize someone has ulterior reasons for their interactions with us, whether it's to recruit for their multi-level marketing program, to proselytize their religion, or to gain access to something or someone. In the nonprofit world, we have to be very careful we do not treat our donors that way. We all want to be treated as whole people. Absolutely no one wants to be reduced to someone else’s project.
This applies to those we serve as well. Even if we think our work is “for their own good,” treating people as the objects of that work is dehumanizing. This ultimately reduces the effectiveness of the work itself. On the other hand, if we partner together with community members, giving them the opportunity to speak and to put their talents to work, so much more can be accomplished than we could possibly do on our own. This is one of the reasons we shy away from using words like “beneficiary,” or “the poor” when we talk about those we serve.
I love the anecdotes we share of people whose lives are being transformed by their participation in Plant With Purpose, but we don’t often have the space or time to capture anything close to the complexity of their true histories. For example, I once met an elderly man hoeing a potato field in a mountain village in Tanzania, who recounted vivid memories of World War II battles he experienced while driving a supply truck for the British army in Burma.
When I first began visiting the communities where we work, one of the things which surprised me was how quickly my mental image of the people who lived there deepened from a faceless multitude to a unique collection of individuals with quirks, complex stories, and often remarkable talents. My mental picture was of sifting through what at first seemed to be sand and coming up with handfuls of gemstones.
There is so much knowledge and capacity and so many underutilized gifts just waiting to be employed. It has completely changed my image of rural Haiti or Burundi—instead of hills filled with struggling farms and hungry people, my image is of hills filled with an untold treasure of talents.
The challenge comes as we try to serve them, without once again reducing them to projects or ignoring and burying those talents. As the organization expands to work with more people and our conversation slowly begins to be dominated by numbers, proposals and dollar amounts, it is easy to imagine that we know what is best for them. After all, we have seen what has worked elsewhere.
Twenty-five years ago, we had a much more prescriptive approach. We offered loans so people could implement a very specific set of farming techniques for a few crops that we promoted. People could plant a combination of fast-growing trees, oregano, and citrus. We offered a blueprint for exactly what their farm should look like and a loan that could only be used to set up the prescribed farm. When I tried to convince our team to remove the restrictions, there was a lot of skepticism. “But then they won’t use the loans to plant trees.” My counterargument was that they had a far better sense of what would work in their own context than we did, and if we were unable to demonstrate the benefit of incorporating trees into their farms, that was on us.
When restrictions were lifted, I was absolutely stunned by the creativity of those we served, and the variety of solutions they incorporated. Businesses that we never could have imagined filled needs that we were unaware of. And yes, some of the money went to plant trees, and in the process forced our training to be more effective and more attuned to the needs of the farmers. Their creativity, insight, and understanding exceeded our own and was a necessary ingredient in our combined success. They were our partners, not our projects.
Of course, nonprofit organizations serve two different customers: the clients for their services, and their donors. These two groups, donors and clients, often have one thing in common: they both tend to think that they know what is best for the client. Some donors, perhaps as a result of success in business in the United States, think they have a pretty good idea of what will work. Because their voices are often connected to vital resources, they often end up more persuasive than those of local farmers.
This may be one of the single biggest reasons that so many development projects fail.
Many organizations will give lip service to the idea of local decision making, but ultimately, its large institutional donors whose priorities are served. This disconnect often happens unconsciously.
Recent moves by large donors toward trust-based philanthropy have made strides towards correcting this imbalance in power. Plant With Purpose also benefits from being blessed with an unusual number of supporters who value local voices and agency.
One of the ways we work to ensure that local opinions are heard is by being rigorous in our impact evaluations, both to verify that we are really making a positive difference, but also to listen and invite feedback. What are people saying? What do they feel are the factors which are limiting them? Impact evaluations are our most effective tool for listening to the voices of our participants and interpreting them on a larger scale.
But there can be a danger with evaluations as well, depending on what we are measuring and for whom we are measuring it. Again, large donors can have a disproportionate influence. Many have their own ideas of what is important and what should be measured. In addition to complicating our own listening, this can have the subtle effect of pulling or skewing the activities of the organization in the direction of the indicator they champion. Consciously or unconsciously, our teams will work to maximize performance in the criterion being measured.
Thus, money can often elevate donor outcomes above those we are measuring on behalf of the community. Once again, power shifts away from local families as their voice is lost. As long as our desired outcomes are congruent, this can be managed, but the priorities of the donor and the local community often diverge, even if subtly.
For example, we have always worked to strike a balance between human flourishing and environmental restoration. However, today, an increasing percentage of our supporters are interested primarily in tree planting and tree survival. As our thinking begins to include more funding for tree planting efforts and carbon offset projects, there is a new peril. People could easily become, once again, a means to an end.
I am excited about the potential for nature-based solutions to climate change. Nature-based solutions can have a significant impact on an urgent issue. At the same time, I fear that globally, smallholder farmers might come to be seen as merely the solution to our climate problem. As more of our effort goes to measuring and maximizing climate outcomes, it will be imperative that we continue listening to and prioritizing the voices of the local families who we serve. Otherwise, there is a danger of letting the urgency of our climate work overwhelm the agency of local voices.
People as “partners, not projects” will remain a critical part of our thinking.