By Rachel Hayman and Sarah Lewis.

Numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are facing the challenge of closing projects and programmes and withdrawing from countries and partnerships. This might be driven by changing organisational priorities, strategic decisions to reduce support in middle-income countries, or funding cuts from donors. Whatever the reason, exiting from a project, programme, country, or partnership is no easy task for anyone involved.

In February 2014, INTRAC began facilitating an action learning set – a group that meets regularly with the express goal of tackling common challenges around exit strategies through supporting and learning from each other – involving five UK-based NGOs (British Red Cross, EveryChild, Oxfam GB, Sightsavers, and WWF-UK).

At the latest meeting on 3rd July, we debated the issue of principles underpinning exit processes, i.e. the practices and values which guide an organisation from design of the exit strategy to behaviour throughout the process. Such principles might be formalised or be implicit.

The existing literature and guidance materials on exit strategies in international cooperation frequently recommend principles for good practice. Examples include:

  • Plan for exit from the outset
  • Think about sustainability early on
  • Consult with partners and stakeholders regularly
  • Communicate constantly.

In the action learning set we wanted to reflect more deeply on whether and how principles for exit are developed and how they play out in practice.

We looked at the example of EveryChild, an organisation which is winding down its operations while supporting the development of Family for Every Child, a member-led global alliance. This major transformation means ending funding relationships with many partners. EveryChild developed three broadprinciples to inform responsible exit processes, complemented by exit criteria (to inform decisions about when and how soon to withdraw), and exit indicators (to monitor the process). The three principles are:

  1. As far as possible, ensure that the work we have done is sustainable – this could be continuation of services or lasting changes in children’s lives.
  2. Ensure the exit does not have a detrimental effect on the children and communities where we work.
  3. As far as possible, ensure that expertise and momentum for change in the country is not lost.

The EveryChild example sparked discussions around the need for principles, how ‘exit principles’ relate to other principles, values or guidelines that the organisations promote, and when is the right time for developing principles.

Exit by Craig Sunter via Flickr.

Exit by Craig Sunter via Flickr.

The literature emphasises that exit strategies should be built into the design of programmes and projects – hence, principles for exit should also exist from the outset. However, this does not seem to be the reality. Instead, it seems that many organisations develop principles only once the decision to exit has been made, and suddenly staff are tasked with designing how exit will happen. This was felt by the group to result in retrofitting, with the establishment of principles for exit coming too late (if at all), effectively creating an additional stress point in an already demanding situation.

However, perhaps the reason exit principles are often not developed early on is because it is not realistic to have these in place at the start of a project or programme; things change, contexts differ, and what was developed at the start becomes outdated. This is not to say that organisations shouldn’t have an exit strategy– or at least a clear picture of what success would look like, an idea of when the job would be considered done, or a roadmap towards sustainability and a reduction in external support. But perhaps it is only when an organisation makes the final decision to exit that the question of how it should happen arises. It is only if the organisation wants exit to be grounded in particular values and ways of working that the need for principles then arises.

Alternatively, it may be only after difficult experiences of exit – when (or if) organisations take time to reflect and learn from these experiences – that organisations are able to develop principles to build into future programming. The question, of course, is whether those principles are actually used in the next round of exits, or whether they are no longer deemed to be relevant and the cycle begins again.

The broader question is whether we need such principles at all. The action learning set participants felt that exit principles do hold value. These should not be operating instructions for exit, but can help to guide behaviour, act as valuable reference points for reviewing exit progress, guide decision-making, and be useful resources for holding organisations and their partners to account during the exit process.

A key thought we took away from the meeting was that the absence of principles to guide exit should not result in angst about not having developed them earlier, but rather as a good moment to dig deep into the organisational culture and architecture in the following ways:

  • To challenge thinking about how to go about exit in a way that respects underlying values of the organisation
  • To dust off the ideas on the shelf around exit, guidelines and values
  • To involve partners in the process

More importantly, developing exit principles, even near the end of a programme or project, is an opportunity to get senior management engaged in the daily realities of staff who are tasked with seeing through exits from projects, programmes, countries, regions or partnerships.