Many community projects with good intentions are wasted because they miss one important factor. The stakeholders don’t feel a sense of ownership over the project.
A sense of ownership is crucial in getting everyone’s commitment to achieving a project’s goals. Moreover, the intended beneficiaries will feel a lack of effort and would be wary of your intention. As a result, they might not accept the project that would have been advantageous to them.
One example is if the members of the organizations are only there because they get paid. While compensating people for their work is not a bad thing, consider how funding goes to waste if the goal is not achieved. Many non-profit groups would have little to no funding, and if the members are not willing to go out of their way to make the project work, then all will go for naught. And frankly, they’re in the wrong place.
Worse, the communities expecting results will suffer. Community work requires a lot of time and patience, most importantly you don’t go into this to earn big money.
So, with a sense of ownership crucial to make community projects sustainable, how can this be fostered among partners and stakeholders?
Providing Clear Goals and Expectations
At the very beginning of the project, the partner community should already be involved. The common mistake of non-profit organizations is to assume the problem, and assume some contexts based on what data they could get. But no matter what data you have, and how good you think your intervention is, if the intended beneficiaries don’t think of it as a problem in the first place, the efforts would be wasted.
Put yourself in their situation. For example, your team is doing an online campaign. You can’t say it’s making a huge impact, but you don’t feel that it’s failing either. Suddenly, your board thinks it’s problematic and asks some consultants to look into it and make it work.
But instead of asking your team what happened, not even looking at the report of the SEO company you work with, they do desk research on how online campaigns are done and how similar campaigns have failed in the past. They then conclude that you need to redesign everything. The conclusion only comes from the consultants’ understanding of other campaigns without looking at specific factors affecting your work. How would you feel?
For sure, you and your colleagues would feel indignant. That’s most likely how your ‘partner’ communities would feel if you just parachute in and present a project that would address a problem that they didn’t even think they had.
For organizations working on environmental protection, for example, how sure could you be that the communities are worried about deforestation? Would they accept your project to ban logging when the companies give them compensation for their forests? Would farmers willingly plant trees without compensation if you say that the lack of water for their crops is due to environmental destruction?
Many factors could affect a community’s behavior. The dynamics in a community are not often reflected in simple data.
Role in Project Management
Treat your beneficiaries as partners. And as partners, they must also be part of decision-making processes and project management as a whole. After all, the project is supposed to be for them. So why would other people, you and your team, be deciding for them?
The gravest sin that a non-government organization could commit is to assume that communities are incapable of making sound decisions. This is exemplified by the International NGOs that swoop into developing countries with the mindset that they are saving communities from their bad practices and lack of knowledge. This heroic stance belittles the traditional knowledge and wisdom of the communities.
Perhaps the communities have no self-awareness of their capacities. But to address this, you only need to do capacity building. It doesn’t mean forcing on them new systems and approaches. It’s building on the existing resources and competencies they already have.
Finally, there should be project transparency. Orientation about the project, the explanation of its goals, processes, and activities should be done at the start. You also have to ensure that everyone, especially when you’re working with a community, knows and understands your project. Misunderstandings could create divisions within the community, and you don’t want your project to be the cause of that.
Making everyone know about the project also removes the danger of individuals gatekeeping to leverage their interests. Engage the entire community in occasional evaluation and feedback sessions.
Communities, especially those that have already been introduced to projects before, could also be wary of NGOs making money out of their situation. To gain their trust, you must make them a part of financial processes and decision-making. Or at the very least, informed of the financial transactions. They should know where the money is going, why a huge project fund would not immediately provide them with cash, or why a large part of the funding goes to particular expenses.
Top-down approach in development is obsolete. It has been proven inefficient and not sustainable. What has been effective is the participatory approach where everyone, the NGO and community beneficiaries alike, has the same level of ownership over the project. Everyone shares responsibility in achieving the project’s goals.