Help Your Organization Avoid Falling into the Biggest Pitfalls of International Humanitarian Development Aid

The field of international humanitarian development aid is a difficult one to navigate. All too often, good intentions go south when organizations don’t focus on making sure their foundations are solid before leaping into action. However, there are steps every organization can take to ensure they’re on the right track. While this is by no means an all inclusive list, here are some of the most common stumbling blocks organizations face, and how to ensure your organization doesn’t stumble on them.

 Have a clearly defined vision.

It is better to be fantastic at one thing than to be mediocre at many. Focusing your organization’s goals and strategies on one vision might feel like you are ignoring other worthy causes as first, but it is impossible to fix every problem in the world at once. It is important for organizations to set out clear and precise missions, values, and guidelines from the start, in order to minimize potential confusion or conflicts when interacting with potential partners and donor bases. Having a strong and well-defined set of goals and parameters will not only help your organization strategize efficiently for the long run, promote yourselves effectively to potential donors, and simplify program planning processes, but it will also help to prevent miscommunications, contradictions in partner and/or donor goals, and internal organizational chaos. This also means that sometimes, it is okay to decline funding. While this may be difficult for small organizations, no group should put itself in a position of compromising values, overhauling planned projects, or acquiescing to unreasonable demands for donor satisfaction. There are a massive number of funds and willing partners out there – with the right research and strategy your organization can find the perfect fit for your work.

Don’t neglect volunteer guidelines.

Volunteers are wonderful. People who genuinely want to donate their time and skills to help others (whether those ‘others’ are humans, animals, the environment, or another worthy cause) are a welcome and necessary part of international development and humanitarian aid. However, all too often, organizations fail to create effective volunteer guidelines. This can lead to placing volunteers into positions where their skills are underutilized, allowing volunteers into an organization where they may not be the best fit, overburdening volunteers with paid staff responsibilities, and undercutting motivation throughout an organization. Simple structural guidelines should be a key component of every organization’s internal arrangements. Volunteers shouldn’t necessarily have to go through as rigorous a process as employed staff to join a team, but there should be a basic application process in place to assess skills, experience, and goals. Through the creation of transparent guidelines, clear procedures, and operational strategies, organizations can effectively coordinate staff and volunteers, setting well-defined roles, preserving staff motivation, and imbuing staff, volunteers, and donors with confidence in your organization and your work.

Don’t hide overhead costs by overburdening staff in other departments.

Building on the need to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of staff and volunteers, organizations must also make sure those roles and responsibilities match the team members’ areas of expertise. All too often, the fear of showing more than 10% overhead costs on annual reports causes organizations to skimp on necessary materials and staff. Personally, I have worked with organizations so desperate to ensure all donations received went directly to projects and programs, that they refused to hire any staff at all, instead of relying on a small team of volunteers for everything. As one can probably guess, this was not a sustainable long term strategy. The volunteers felt overworked, underappreciated, and taken advantage of by the organization, which in turn saw a severe decline in fundraising success and network building as team motivation plummeted. By the time the organization realized that they needed to hire paid staff, it was too late to recover their collapsed donor and partner relationships.

While this may be an extreme example, another complaint that I hear all too often comes from paid staff being burdened with tasks outside their job descriptions. Keeping overhead costs low is a worthy goal, and the recent scandals surrounding large, well known groups spending up to 90% of their annual budgets on overhead and internal costs put a great deal of pressure on the rest of the aid world to avoid spending money on anything unnecessary. However, when organizations try to cut costs by rolling HR and finance departments into project management and program design, the whole organization will suffer. Instead of overburdening staff with responsibilities they did not sign up for and aren’t necessarily qualified to handle, organizations must simply demonstrate to donors and partners that each and every cent in their budget is used in the most effective and efficient way possible, thereby creating the strongest program impacts achievable.

Work with local communities, not around them.

It can be a difficult balance for organizations entering a vulnerable community. Assessing needs, planning programs, and providing solutions for local problems are great, but only if local communities are included in these processes. Often, an individual or organization comes up with what seems like a great idea, but ends up a colossal failure due to a lack of understanding of beneficiary communities and environments. In other cases, organizations end up being actively detrimental to target populations, such as in the case of many aptly dubbed “voluntourism” trips. This stems from a lack of understanding and coordination with local beneficiaries. In order for organizations to create long-lasting, sustainable impacts that will genuinely help target populations, the needs, wants, and opinions of those target populations must be included as the foundations of the programs being designed. By working with locals, not only will organizations avoid implementing potential disasters, they will also receive invaluable insights and ideas that may trigger even more effective programs in the end.

Don’t think too big, too fast.

A major factor in international humanitarian development aid is scalability. Donors want results, on a large scale in a short time. Aiming big is admirable, and the desire to help as many people as possible is a noble goal, but often, organizations bite off far more than they can chew. Development aid is not one size fits all. What demonstrates amazing results in one village in Kenya, might deliver catastrophic failure in India. Rather than achieving large-scale failures with low – or negative – impact, organizations should strive for delivering small-scale successes with high, sustainable impacts. While projects themselves may not be scalable, processes often are. Once an organization finds the strategies and program design processes that work for them, they can apply those skills and methodologies to various target groups alongside local insights and culturally-sensitive practices. As these processes and programs grow, organizations should consistently monitor and evaluate effectiveness and efficiency.

If your organization is struggling with these pitfalls, or you simply want to build a strong foundation to avoid them in the first place – Catalystas is here to help. With a combined six decades of experience in program design and implementation, strategic planning, fundraising, and monitoring and evaluation, our experts are ready to help take your organization to the next level.