By Rick James.

We’ll never reach sustainable development until we take exit more seriously. So many NGOs pay lip-service to sustainability, but actually operate in ways that makes them indispensable to the partners and communities with which they work. We may like being needed, but it is not healthy, nor empowering. The good thing about planning to exit is that it focuses the mind on what really matters. What is the legacy you will leave? Who will take responsibility for the work after you have gone? How will they resource it?

'Exit' by Fabio Sola Penna via Flickr. Creative Commons licensing.Exit should not be a negative event. It is the door to successful development. But NGOs do not naturally gravitate towards that door. It takes hard work to get there. INTRAC recently completed the first stage of an evaluation of EveryChild’s Responsible Exit processes. The review highlighted some key lessons:

Start now and don’t rush

How many times have you read that ‘exit should be planned from the start? While this may be true, it does not help much if a programme is already underway. It just makes you feel guilty. But if you delay thinking about it and wait until afunding crisisforces the issue it may be too late. The resulting efforts will probably be rushed and under-resourced – ending in tears.

Now is the time to start taking exit seriously. It is much better to take exit by the hand and lead it to where you want it to go, rather than wait until it grabs you by the throat and drags you off in an unwanted direction. If you start now, you will have more time for planning, implementing and developing local capacity.

In the EveryChild example, exiting responsibly took time. While the length of the partnership and the extent of financial dependence affect the time-scale, as a rule of thumb it took EveryChild two years to exit well from partners of more than five years.

Let partners lead

‘Exit is not your process’ (as my last blog ‘Which way to sustainable exit?’ pointed out). It is the response of the partners and communities that really matters. Therefore healthy exit involves letting the partners lead the process.

Initially EveryChild identified three core principles for exit. These value-based principles gave direction to and reassurance in a sensitive process. But partners were then responsible for turning these broad principles into practical action in a joint process with EveryChild. Together they developed an inclusive exit planning process, involving communities and beneficiaries as much as possible. Partners owned their indicators for successful exit.

Invest in the process

Exit is not a good way of saving money in the short term. Exiting responsibly may need increased contact and communication with partners. EveryChild invested heavily in face-to-face visits as well as regular calls by Skype and phone. Theyfound that frequent communication helped considerably in allaying fears and motivating positive responses.It helped to be up-front and as open and honest as possible. Trust tends to be repaid.

In an NGO’s exit, local stakeholders have to step into taking on greater responsibility. They may need tailored capacity development support. Responsible exit therefore often entails greater financial investment in the short-term.

Pay close attention to the process

Because exit does not occur naturally, it needs careful and close management.The EveryChild experience showed the value of relentlessly monitoring the implementation of exit plans and systematically learning from experience. In this way EveryChild maintained a healthy pressure to reach milestones and energised a difficult change process. It meant that they were able to make constant improvements to the exit process as they went along.

It’s all about relationship

In the end the quality of exit closely relates to the quality of existing relationships with partners and communities. Dependent partners find exit difficult. In most cases, EveryChild’s exit process was done from a position of relational strength. They had paid close attention to the quality of the partnership over the years with annual partnership reviews. It meant that when it came to exiting, most partners trusted EveryChild implicitly and therefore responded positively to the challenge of EveryChild’s exit.

The exit door

There are no short-cuts to the responsible exit door. A hasty exit in financial crisis does not leave partners empowered. Responsible exit takes time, effort and investment. It helps if you start now. Your partners will need to take ownership and leadership of the process. It requires careful management and healthy relationships. Exit may be challenging and even threatening to our normal NGO ways of operating, but it’s the only door to genuinely sustainable development.