By Rachel Hayman


Responsible exit planning is as vital now as it has ever been. However, CSOs don’t need to start from scratch. There is a wealth of advice already available.

In 2011, I was running INTRAC’s NGO Research Programme, an initiative funded by European INGOs to create learning spaces and produce participatory research on issues affecting INGOs and their partners. As a spin-off to a broader research project INTRAC was involved in at the time – Civil Society at a Crossroads – we were asked to dig deeper into the impact of aid withdrawal on partnerships and programmes, and particularly to explore the practical resources available for planning for and delivering exit strategies. This was something that INTRAC staff and friends had been highlighting back in the 1990s, but it was not a topic that featured highly in NGO management literature.

Over the following few years we collaborated with numerous INGOs and their staff in country offices, to explore how different organisations were – or were not – thinking about how to exit well. We dug into the existing literature at the time, focused on practical tools that organisations could then make use of. At the time there wasn’t a lot in the public domain to work with, with a few notable exceptions which still offer really useful insights and ideas. Among these I’d recommend “What We Know About Exit Strategies” (2005) by Alison Gardner and colleagues on the C-SAFE initiative, and the reports by Beatrice Rogers and Kathy Macias on the FANTA project. If you can get hold of it, everyone writing about this topic still refers to a piece by Beryl Levinger and Jean McLeod from 2002 called ‘Hello, I must be going: Ensuring quality services and sustainable benefits through well-designed exit strategies’ although I can’t find a link to an online version.

We produced our own materials from the INTRAC research and learning initiatives, including blogs, conference reports, webinar recordings and several longer papers. All of these are available on our dedicated ‘exit’ page. The papers include perspectives from those on the receiving end, those facing the exit.

These resources provided knowledge and tools that individual INGOs and funders of civil society organisations could build on as they designed and planned for exit – factoring in underpinning principles, thinking about exit from the outset of a project or relationship, paying attention to listening to partners, investing in capacity support to strengthen partner sustainability, and celebrating the end. Time and again we’ve seen these approaches being put into practice, tailored to context. On a regular basis I revisit a paper by Sarah Lewis that captured learning from an action learning process, known to me as the ‘timeline paper’.

Getting exit right is one thing that INGOs and funders can do to leave a legacy that strengthens rather than weakens their partners.

As INTRAC moved more into turning the learning into individualized support for specific organisations, others took up the challenge to continue expanding the knowledge base through new participatory research initiatives. This included pursuing the link between responsible exit and civil society resilience and sustainability, as Emmanuel Kumi has done. Useful resources for grantmakers have been produced by Grantcraft, and Valuing Voices are a source of inspiration for assessing sustainability through post-exit evaluations.. In April 2020, Knowledge for Development produced a new synthesis of resources aimed at those working in the humanitarian sector.

Of particular note is the Stopping As Success project that ended in March 2020, producing a panoply of blogs, case studies (20 in total), practical resources and tools: these include guidance on planning, capacity development, communications, power analysis, and financial sustainability.

As colleagues and partners in this current series are observing, the COVID-19 pandemic might be exposing the fragility of civil society organisations, requiring rapid adaptation in INGOs as they cope with major changes in the funding environment. But it is also opening up opportunities for creativity, for building back better and stronger. There are several exciting initiatives underway, such  as the ‘Reinventing INGO System project’ and the RINGO project, to rethink how civil society groups around the world can work together differently into the future.

Getting exit right is one thing that INGOs and funders can do to leave a legacy that strengthens rather than weakens their partners. There are plenty of good tools to use to do this; we encourage you to use them. And if you need help to apply them, INTRAC’s team of experienced advisors around the world is here for you.

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