THE BLOG
08/16/2011 04:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

Mercy Corps: Mission Accomplished?

If you think Portland-based Mercy Corps is an air ambulance service, a religious sect or a merciful military organization, you would be wrong.

Mercy Corp -- operating in 40 countries, employing about 4,000 people -- annually tackles the world's toughest challenges: agricultural development; children's survival; citizen involvement; climate change; disaster risk reduction; economic development; education; financial services; food/nutrition; health; HIV/AIDS; hunger; marginalized groups; microfinance; peaceful change; social innovations; urbanization; water/sanitation; women's empowerment; youth. Check out actress Tina Fey's take on Mercy Crops:

In its own words, Mercy Corps, "exists to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities." I wish someone would say that about me!

In an interview, Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer distinguishes Mercy Corp as "not one of these organizations that sees itself staying in a country forever.... it's important to begin thinking about an exit strategy almost from day one. What that does is get us focused early on issues like sustainability, capacity building, and leaving behind a legacy."

These days, many funders and foundations, donors and social investors are churning out a cacophony of bromides and boundaries -- calling for end points, tangible results, sustainable and scaled change, progress reports with measureable impacts and, inevitably, exist plans. Well and good, but a vexing and fundamental question about "exits" lingers.

Keny-Guyer's comments are an unexpected prompt for mulling over the conflicting and unreasonable expectations donors can lay on international aid groups. For some donors, the mixed message is: make a lasting difference, but don't stay too long and -- oh, yes -- have a plan (an exit?) to stop asking for more money.

But, if the goal is alleviating poverty, why would a foundation, donor or economic development organization want or design an "exit strategy"? Exit strategies make sense for the Department of Defense. Fight a war, win or lose it, then bring the troops home.

No sane person calls for exit strategies on promoting free speech or medical research, on promoting peace or clean air. Why, when the fight is for economic justice -- an endless campaign of "helping people build secure, productive and just communities," do commitments waver and weaken? And especially, if an organization, like a Mercy Corps, is doing impactful work, why stop?

Mercy Corp in the last decade has exited the Philippines, Serbia and Bosnia. According to Keny-Guyer, vibrant, sustainable, well-governed local institutions have been nurtured to independence. And, therein lies the answer:

Kudos for stepping aside when a local organization can make it on its own!

Mercy Corps has shrewdly converted a one-dimensional donor demand into a management tool for building local capacity and sustainable institutions. I plan to learn more details at this year's Opportunity Collaboration because Mercy Corps is a fellow Delegate.

With 3 billion people worldwide struggling to make a decent life, we all know exit strategies are improbable, sometimes warranted and damn hard to pull off. In the cause of economic justice, there is no exit.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.