I’d like to think that we are all working in civil society because we want to see a better world: fairer, equal, sustainable communities that have a better quality of life and opportunity to fulfil their purpose in life; a sustained environment that protects biodiversity and manages climate change. I’d also like to think that we do this work because we passionately believe that the interventions and programmes that we are delivering are actually going to create value, make a difference and ultimately bring about the change that we want to see.
If that is so, why do so many organisations and groups not engage with the very communities and beneficiaries that they purport to serve when it comes to determine value created by their work?
Let me first clarify what value means for me: Value can be financial or non-financial and is created when communities or beneficiaries identify that either an intervention or the results of an intervention are important enough to them that they are willing to forgo something else, change behaviour or pay for that result or intervention somehow. This can be anything from a community group that voluntarily conducts a beach clean every Sunday morning because they value a clean environment, to a paid-for service that increases access for older people and reduces isolation and loneliness, to a farming initiative that provides paid-for training and skills to small scale farmers and access to markets for their produce, to a programme that reduces HIV stigma and discrimination to keep families together for which the families absorb additional cost to better manage their nutritional needs so that the adults can go to work and the children can still go to school.
So value is many things to many people. But what it is not, is a designed programme by organisations that have decided that project A in programme B fits in with their Theories of Change and, sometimes just as importantly, they have identified a funding opportunity to support their programme.
If, as I suspect, we all want to contribute our skills and experience to making the world a better place, we have to start with those communities, beneficiaries and stakeholders that we want to influence and understand what their priorities are and figure out of to work with them, not for them or even against them. This might lead to some uncomfortable truths such as: “the community actually doesn’t want our programme at all, they want something that NGO B delivers” to “what we want to do isn’t going to deliver the results that the community wants to see, instead they tell us that it might lead to more poaching of Rhino.”
We have to be wise enough to know when what we do is not what is wanted and we have to be flexible enough to change and adapt to ensure our own experience and contributions do not go to waste.
How does your organisation put beneficiaries and stakeholders at the centre of its work?