By Rick James

Exit will be a core strategy of international NGOs for years to come. The recent announcement from Oxfam that they are leaving 18 countries and exiting from 700 partners is a bitter taste of the post-Brexit, post-COVID-19, post-DFID future for those of us based in the UK. Because of the UK’s large footprint in development, these issues will have a much wider effect. As incomes fall, most international NGOs will break off funding partnerships with some local CSOs. It is not whether they will exit, but how they choose to do it.

Exit raises the real risk of leaving a legacy of lasting damage, not just to individual partners, but to the civil society sector. Even in a financial crisis, INGOs must put huge effort into leaving well. We all know there are no simple remedies for how to break off any relationship well. Ending well does not avoid pain, but it may mitigate the risk of damage.

A good start is to learn from others’ past experiences. INTRAC has been accompanying INGOs to learn from their exit experiences for the past decade. We have done this through Action Learning Sets, evaluations, workshops and virtual conferences, advisory support to INGOs as they have planned exit processes, capacity strengthening programmes and occasionally by facilitating organisational funeral services. There is an increasing body of knowledge about how to exit well.

My own experiences of these exits and endings have taught me six things that organisations should strive to do.

1) Live out your stated values in exit

Our values are what are meant to set NGOs apart. Our values are about how we behave in the day-to-day realities, not the statements stuck on the wall above the photocopier. Crises reveal our true character. Exit is an opportunity for us to live up to who we say we are and who we want to be. This takes courageous, yet humble, leadership. Some INGOs have found it valuable to develop a few core principles for responsible exit to guide them in the multiple and complex decisions throughout the process.

2) Turn exit into sustainable programming

What matters most in ‘exit’ is not the departure of an international NGO, but the sustainability of what is left behind. When I evaluated EveryChild’s exit from 15 countries, what struck me was they had somehow managed to shift the language and the programming towards sustainability and away from exit. Partners created their own sustainability plans to guide them into a future beyond EveryChild’s exit. Community ownership and constructive engagement with local government, suddenly shifted from something considered ‘nice to have’ to being seen as ‘absolutely core’ to everything they did. Exit focuses the mind and creates the opportunity to make existing programmes radically more sustainable.

As incomes fall, most international NGOs will break off funding partnerships with some local CSOs. It is not whether they will exit, but how they choose to do it.

3) Give partners as much time as possible to adjust

We all need time to adjust to difficult new situations. It takes time to address any loss in income, and deal with the accompanying emotional elements to loss – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before we reach acceptance. Experience suggests that giving the process of exit two years for long-term partnerships is a reasonable rule of thumb. Sadly, in the imminent funding crisis, INGOs may not have the ‘luxury’ of two years. But this still means it is vital to think through how to mitigate the brutality of sudden exit and give partners as much time as possible to adjust.

4) Communicate constantly and openly

Open communication in exit is of paramount importance. Bad news is best communicated in person, especially when it is hard to take. We don’t want to be informed of our redundancy in an email or be dumped by a partner with a text message. It helps when the communication comes from leadership, and is consistent, on-going and preferably face-to-face (though this is obviously more difficult currently). A conversation, however difficult and however virtual, at least allows the opportunity for listening, questioning, probing, explaining, and exploring future options.

5) Invest in capacity strengthening

Hopefully capacity strengthening support will have been a core part of the partnership all along, where CSOs have asked for this type of assistance. It should not be a token ‘golden handshake’ at the end of a relationship. Capacity strengthening for exit may have specific priorities. For example, it may be about ensuring leadership has the support to be the visionary, hopeful, creative, empowering leaders that local CSOs need to survive. It may focus on resource mobilization and developing new fundraising skills.  It may also be about helping CSOs reconnect with their core identity and develop a clearer, more focused and more impactful strategy as a team of Ethiopian consultants, supported by INTRAC, are doing with former partners of Oak Foundation.

6) End well

The NGO sector does not tend to do endings well. As programmes and partnerships end, we will need to invest time and effort to ensure that we meet existing commitments and that when we leave, people are not left worse off than when we arrived. ‘Do no harm’ is even more important in endings. Symbolic endings, like funerals, can be an important element in ending well. A good funeral appreciates all that has been achieved, gives thanks, and celebrates the life that has passed. It provides a time to grieve and also learn from experience.

The next few years will undoubtedly be tough. INTRAC is here to support NGOs in these difficult times. We do not pretend to have easy answers or quick fix solutions. What we do have is more than 10 years’ experience learning and helping NGOs to exit responsibly. We believe amidst all the pain of exit, INGOs still have options to behave in ways that align with their core values, avoid harm and even encourage a legacy of positive change for civil society.

If you would like to discuss how INTRAC can support you when it comes to exiting responsibly, please contact us.

This blog is the first in our series on the topic of responsible exit, taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic:

No. 1: Living our values in the distress of exit (July 2020)
No. 2: Exit can be a good thing for local civil society (September 2020)
No. 3: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in exit planning (October 2020)
No. 4: If you can’t exit well, at least exit less badly (October 2020)
No. 5: In Ethiopia, exit presents real challenges for civil society (November 2020)
No. 6: A cautious welcome to the localisation agenda (December 2020)
No. 7: Ending well (December 2020)
No. 8: What working with EveryChild taught me about responsible exit (December 2020)