Cross-Sector Collaboration in International Development and Philanthropy
“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
“Working together is success”: it is a simple lesson taught in grade school and yet too often an obstacle in international development and philanthropy. Thinking about collaboration in an international setting, many people envision the interaction of individuals from different countries and regions and of diverse languages and cultures. Equally critical for success, however, are the relationships among the different sectors involved in international development and philanthropy, including those between nonprofits and government bodies and between charitable nonprofits and academic institutions.
Nonprofits and Governments
The bond between nonprofits and governments has long been complex, both mutually beneficial and at times contentious. In theory, the two are strategic partners: the nonprofit sector provides services that the government cannot or will not provide to society, and in return, the government provides tax breaks and funding to the sector. Local, state, and federal funding comprises on average 35% of charities’ grants, and for many social service organizations, the percentage of government support is much greater. For international development in 2007, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) alone requested a budget of over $9 billion.
Still, as Dr. Jane Aronson, founder of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, commented at a Columbia University Partnership for International Development conference this spring, nonprofit-state collaboration often feels more like a “love-hate relationship.” Though Dr. Aronson was quick to express her tremendous gratitude for USAID’s support of her foundation’s Vietnam site, she acknowledged that it can be “maddening sometimes” to deal with government paperwork and bureaucracy. In comparison, her foundation’s Ethiopia site, which is predominantly funded by private donors, is “not encumbered,” leading to what she described as a sense of greater freedom, trust, and creativity.
The frustrations go both ways. A recent sociological study by Ronald Jacobs and Sarah Sobieraj about the government’s perception of the nonprofit sector (Sociological Theory 2007) suggests that politicians engage in two competing narratives about nonprofits. The first is that nonprofits are “heroic charity organizations helping the downtrodden,” thus justifying the nonprofit tax break, yet also threatening the role of government workers by casting them as “obstacles to the effective functioning of the charity sector.” Leaders of foundations promoting Middle East-western relations in the post-9/11 world, for instance, express frustration that government regulations are especially difficult for small or new foundations to follow.
In the second Jacobs and Sobieraj narrative, politicians see themselves as the heroes, keeping check on “dangerous organizations masquerading as charities [that trick] philanthropists and foundation leaders into giving them money.” Certainly using “dangerous” and “masquerading” to describe nonprofits is a stretch from how most politicians view the sector. Yet the general sentiment can be heard. William H. Donaldson, a man who has investigated fraudulent activity at Enron and other large companies as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has stated that he sees a “pervasive erosion of ethical standards and practices” in the nonprofit world.
At the heart of these concerns is the issue of transparency. In recent years, the nonprofit sector has been under significant government scrutiny to use funding more effectively and measure program results more concretely. When the Senate Finance Committee investigated the Red Cross last year, it reported a lack of engagement by the Board of Directors and a high percentage of charity funds going toward administrative costs.
Some nonprofit workers bemoan heavy government involvement in nonprofit programming and financing, arguing that it can restrict innovative programming for controversial issues or curtail advocacy work not in line with state policy. On the other hand, greater transparency of nonprofit financial and management information can be useful for organizations seeking funding from similar sources as their peers’ and for those hoping to gain insight into the most effective ways to approach international development. Moreover, it is an opportunity for nonprofits with sound accounting records to win more donor support.
At international sites, the relationship between nonprofits and local governments can take on unique dimensions. A nonprofit’s efforts can be stymied by uncooperative local authorities or governments that are not responsible about how and where they direct their funds. Additional problems arise when funds intended for certain groups never make it past government hands. A recent report by New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry stated that Fiji’s political instability, for example, has “cost it dearly in terms of aid,” as official figures from the Ministry show that in 2003-04 just half of the $4.1 million of budgeted aid was used.
Conversely, a successful collaboration between local governments and nonprofits can be the key to sustainability, ultimately leading to a project in which minimal foreign involvement is necessary. Mark Rosenman, vice president and graduate professor of The Union Institute, writes that government has the potential “to reduce the need for charities’ services by the appropriate exercise of its powers to regulate the ways both public and private institutions operate.”
AMPATH (the Academic Model for the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS), a system of HIV/AIDS control for several million people in western Kenya, is one example of an innovative philanthropic-local government collaboration. Initiated in 2001 with private philanthropic support and a long-standing partnership between Indiana University and Moi University in Kenya, all AMPATH facilities (including the Moi Hospital and a network of district hospitals and rural health clinics) are operated by the Kenya Ministry of Health.
Nonprofits and Academia
As with governments, nonprofit professionals collaborate with academics in international development work in a variety of ways. Medical research is used to develop new drugs for use in developing countries. International development nonprofits are housed on university campuses. Professors and students start their own nonprofits or serve as board members.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus crossed the perceived “ivory tower/real world” divide by combining his knowledge as a university economics professor and his passion to help the poor to create a pioneering microfinance initiative. At some colleges and universities, professors are designing classes that challenge students to apply their academic research to tackle real world problems, such as the Harvard College sociology courses “Research for Nonprofits” and “Community Based Research.”
Yet as with nonprofits and governments, the theme of accountability is also highly relevant to the intersection of charitable nonprofits and academia, particularly in conducting research. Scholars trying to bridge the two types of research often find themselves sandwiched between two sets of expectations. On one side is the world of academic research theoretical, independent, and intended for publication and on the other is the world of nonprofit-funded research applied, agenda-driven, and usually the nonprofits’ intellectual property.
According to Columbia Professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi, who spoke at the CUPID Conference, graduate students and non-tenured professors are “punished” if their work is too applied or if the researcher is too involved in the lives of his or her subjects. Nonprofit professionals, in contrast, value direct experience “in the field”, getting to know individuals and communities.
Furthermore, applied research is often difficult to publish in academic journals, in part due to academic principles of remaining a non-participant in the lives of one’s subjects and in part because a nonprofit itself may seek to censor research that is not favorable to its public image. Yet the challenge for graduate students and junior faculty is that academic publishing is necessary to earn tenure, making it difficult to spend precious time on work that cannot be published.
When academic researchers do conduct studies in the developing world, their work can be controversial. An example is the case of drug trials to treat tuberculosis for HIV-positive patients in Uganda. Despite the fact that there are long-standing official recommendations that these patients should receive a certain treatment, such trials treat one group of patients with actual medication and another group with a placebo (a substance containing no medication).
The use of a placebo is a common practice used in medical research for establishing a control group to test for drug effectiveness where there is no prior evidence to suggest that the drug being tested is any more effective than no treatment at all. However, in cases where known treatments are available, using placebos can be unethical, subordinating the subjects’ welfare to the study objectives. While some researchers argue that treating human subjects as a means to an ends is acceptable if the benefit to future patients is substantial, most international healthcare nonprofits, such as the organization Partners in Health, believe that while research is critical, “service starts with medical care.”
Another common divergence between the approach of many nonprofits and that of academic research relates to the degree to which their international development work is wide-ranging or more focused in one area. Large international nonprofits such as UNICEF and CARE tend to use their resources and knowledge to effect change at multiple sites around the world. Academic researchers, on the other hand, are required to possess an in-depth body of knowledge in an area of specialty, at times constraining their ability to stretch their time over a broad spectrum of projects. For example, when she began receiving offers from all over the world to conduct research on education, Prof. Steiner-Khamsi chose to limit her nonprofit research work to Mongolia in order to gain country-specific expertise.
Despite these challenges for nonprofit-academic collaboration, the best aspects of each tradition have much potential for helping the other to progress. Greater sharing among nonprofits of the findings of their research, as is generally practiced in academia, for instance, would prevent the “re-inventing of the wheel” that occurs when nonprofits hire their own researchers to start work from scratch that had previously been done by another group. On the flip side, Professor Steiner-Khamsi pointed out that academic researchers ought to practice what nonprofits have long known: engaging locals as equal partners such as co-authoring articles is vitally important.
As leaders from nonprofits, businesses, government, and academia converge at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City next week, it will be interesting to see the partnerships that develop among key players from so many sectors. As with all endeavors, the most successful initiatives empower and expect all of its constituents to leverage their strengths for an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts. When this happens, in the spirit of Henry Ford, working together truly is success.