By Rachel Hayman, with inputs and insights from action learning set participants.

Over the past few months my colleague Rick James has produced a series of posts on capacity building. Capacity building, organisational development, and relationship management with partners was the topic of the latest meeting of our action learning set on exit strategies. (To learn what an action learning set is generally and about this one in particular, see my last blog post with Sarah Lewis, ‘NGO exit strategies: Are principles for closing projects or ending partnerships necessary?‘)

I re-read all Rick’s blog posts as I prepared for our meeting and dug back into my own work and that of other colleagues at INTRAC on partnership. International NGOs (INGOs) are subject to a lot of criticism when it comes to capacity building their partners – their rhetoric never quite reflects the reality. Reading through Rick’s posts, key concepts that jumped out for me included: leadership, trust, conscience, character, being self-critical, cultivating not building, cultivating not controlling, making it personal not mechanical, thinking long-term not short-term, and being ruthless where a project, programme, or organisation needs to die.

This reflects quite closely the way INTRAC has long thought about partnership. Running through our publications and commissioned reports on partnership over the years – back to some of the seminal work done by Alan Fowler and Vicky Brehm (among others) in the early 2000s and through to the present day – is the deep concern that INGOs too often treat partners in an instrumental way. They consistently struggle to develop deeper, intrinsic relationships based on trust, conscience, solidarity, and equality. Too often there is significant pressure for organisations to concentrate their relationships with partners around the project, around programme management and monitoring and evaluation (M&E), or around exits when they occur.

hands_by_john_morgan_via_flickr_cc_300x200So this was going through my mind as I listened to the action learning set group debate how they manage relationships with their partners as they withdraw financial support; and how they tackle capacity building and organisational development as part of the process. In his first blog post, Rick observed that too often international agencies start thinking seriously about capacity building as they are preparing to leave a country, programme, or partnership. This is probably pretty accurate in many instances.

But our action learning set is all about how to make exit strategies better in the future, striving to counter an often negative picture. So in our meeting we spent time reflecting about where capacity building comes when thinking of exit. Does it drive decisions on exit – i.e. exit decisions are made because an organisation has reached a stage where it can better stand alone? Is it a necessary process as part of exit – i.e. to ensure a responsible exit, specific capacities of organisations need to be built up so the partner has a better chance of survival after support is withdrawn? Does the type of capacity building change when the decision to exit has been made – i.e. a shift in focus towards fundraising or leadership training? Does capacity building become an ad-hoc afterthought that we think we could have done better and promise we will do next time – or does it not feature at all? Could it be that we overplay our own importance as INGOs and struggle to let go?

Two presentations fed our debates: from British Red Cross and from Sightsavers.

For British Red Cross (BRC), the way in which the exit – and more importantly the partnership – is conducted has profound implications. If the partnership and processes of transition and exit do not take into account the ambitions of the partner, they may focus on the short term – the survival and continuation of certain programmes and services of the organisation – over longer-term strategy. Formal partnership review mechanisms are a key way to work towards more equitable partnerships. They can prevent local partners being treated as instruments, they create time to examine whether partnerships align with the organisations’ mandates, and they contribute towards the partner’s local relevance.

The BRC presentation highlighted the importance of integrating organisational development into partnership management. BRC is beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of organisational development and capacity building throughout the phases of the partnership, not just at exit. This stems from the recognition that support aimed at improving organisational functions (e.g. human resources) or enhancing programme capacity may be very different from support required in exit, which often focuses on financial sustainability. Organisational strengthening may also require specific skill sets, resources and entry points. In providing organisational development assistance, BRC has to consider the capacity of partners to absorb the many technical inputs, as well as the relevance and timeliness of support, in often volatile, unpredictable contexts.

Sightsavers and their partners in one geographical region embarked on what some may consider a long exit process. It combined an increased focus on capacity building with a gradual reduction of funding over an eight-year period. The main drivers for exit were the need to diversify partner income streams and the knowledge that partners could sustain their own programmes in the medium term. This was underpinned by a willingness to change the nature of relationships.

The early stages of exit planning involved people at many levels of all organisations including CEOs, finance, programme, communications and fundraising staff, and even occasional input from board members. As the exit moved forward, relationships become more defined and a few key people now guide the process.

Grant funding early in the process was key to what is likely to be a successful exit. One objective of the funded project was specific capacity building support to improve partner skills, systems and processes. Other project activities were designed to enable partners to develop and manage viable income generating initiatives.

The exit process is guided by Sightsavers’ programme partnership policy, with regular assessment methods employed at various stages, including capacity and financial assessments and project evaluation. Challenges with a long-term exit include maintaining focus on capacity building, ensuring organisational continuity, and understanding and managing external relationships that may affect the exit process and the partnerships.

These are two positive examples of how organisations are taking both partnership principles and capacity building for the long-term sustainability of their partners seriously. Here we have experiences of long-term, well-managed exit processes, real investment in income generation, responsiveness to current and changing needs, and systems in place that allow country managers and directors to learn from each other. They demonstrate how much is going on within organisations that are managing exit processes; and the value of sharing and comparing across the sector to ensure good practice is built on by others.

Our discussions demonstrated the need for better engagement within organisations that brings together thinking around exit processes and thinking around:

  • How partnerships are defined, entered into, reviewed and managed
  • How sustainability is understood and capacity building support is provided to achieve sustainability – when does an INGO’s responsibility end and when is it time to let go?
  • How organisational development is integrated into partnership relationships
  • How much an organisation is willing to invest in the process of withdrawing financial support

Finally, personalities and personal interaction really matter. Within all five organisations, we have seen how staff changes on both sides of partnerships have strongly affected exit or transition processes. And leadership is crucial on the INGO and partner sides. This is something we will be coming back to in more depth in future meetings.

Members of the action learning presented some of their learning to date around ‘sustainability and exit strategies’ at the INTRAC workshop, Building Sustainability of Civil Society, 25-26 November 2014, in Oxford, UK.