In an era when a single video on the Internet can launch an idea that leads to a revolution, the international donor community needs to reevaluate how it selects and awards grants to civil society organizations (CSOs) in transitional countries.
Most donors agree that, too often, awards are based on the quality of the written application (often presented in English by non-English speakers). The conventional wisdom behind this practice is that written applications help donors assess the commitment and ability of those who will implement the project, and determine whether the organization and project have the support of the local community. However, in meetings with CSOs and community representatives from Eastern Europe to South East Asia many raised concern about this approach. CSO representatives, particularly those from the rural regions, complained that donors tend to give more weight to applicants' ability to communicate in writing than to their commitment to the community and their ability to implement a successful project. A better approach for donors may be to supplement the current grant process with new media tools and a shift in emphasis from organizational sustainability to community sustainability.
Traditionally, donors rely on relationships cultivated with CSOs through the years. The logic is that an organization with an established track record in mitigating an issue or in project development and implementation, warrants continued support. On the other hand, donors are on the lookout for new ideas from up-and-coming organizations and individuals with fresh approaches to addressing societies' social, political, environmental, and economic challenges. This has posed a challenge for donors: how can they continue their support for effective, conventional organizations while reaching out to unconventional movements, organizations, and individuals who are disqualified by default because of the nature of the customary grant application process?
For starters, donors need to refocus their objective from the sustainability of the organization to the sustainability of society. Traditional grant-giving programs have created a system that prioritizes project implementation and impact over the transfer of knowledge and skills to the community. Under the current system, organizations with superior proposal writing skills and a track record in developing and implementing similar projects in different communities, are often parachuted in. This may result in the successful completion of the project and, often, the introduction of a novel idea and approach in addressing the community needs. However, if these project implementation skills are not shared with the community, the local populations will be no better prepared than before to address issues in their own communities once the funding dries up and the implementing organization leaves. We need to find a balance between supporting the organization, as the developer and implementer of the project, while garnering greater buy-in from the community.
What specifically can donors do? To begin, with, donors need to broaden the application process to make better use of new media tools. A great project idea that lacks detailed planning, good execution, and community support is a recipe for failure. For example, grant review committees can provide applicants with the opportunity to supplement their written applications with discussions of the project and the idea via Skype. This would provide a platform for ideas to be explained verbally. A video component is another opportunity for the grantee to showcase the key elements of the proposal. The digital videos can be placed on CDs, flash drives, YouTube, or on the organization's website. It would be an opportunity for the organization to visually display their community, the issues, and their key staff. Video components of an application could include interviews with community leaders, businesses, and provide government officials' comments on the project and its potential impact on the community. The video component could also be used by the public and media to monitor the organization's project, should it be funded. Upon completion of the project, the organization could also be required to submit both a written and a video final report. Final video reports could potentially lead to the creation of an online video library resource center accessible to communities and CSOs across the globe.
Today's technology allows more people more opportunities to propose solutions to the world's problems. When both the donor and the applicants free themselves from the offline approach to developing and implementing ideas, it will better our society. We may even change the definition of "sustainability" posited by environmentalist Gifford Pinchot -- "the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time" -- from wishful thinking to a way of working.