By Rick James, INTRAC Principal consultant.

Sustainable exit – it’s the holy grail of development. It’s something we all aspire for. Yet few of our programmes and partnerships ever get close. The worst partnerships exit in crisis. But many of the ‘best’ go on and on for years with an endless succession of new projects. This may not be far from unhealthy dependence.

EveryChild would not claim to have reached the grail either. Yes, they have successfully exited from 15 countries. Only time will tell how sustainably. The recent INTRAC evaluation of their exit process found that they have taken a more considered, intentional and well-resourced attempt than most international NGOs. They took six main steps in their quest for sustainable exit.

1.    Participatory planning for exit

Exit is not about you. It’s the response of the partner or community that matters. Because this response is all-important, the way in which we communicate about exit is vital. It is almost never appropriate to simply write an email. EveryChild found they sometimes had to make a series of face-to-face visits before a negative denial of exit changed into a positive ownership of sustainability.

EveryChild supported partners and communities to develop their own sustainability plans. During visits EveryChild staff played a facilitative role, asking difficult questions but leaving it up to partners to make decisions and prioritise. The sustainability plan took a fresh look at outcomes, not just continuing existing activities. Partners translated the resulting strategy into annual operational plans and budgets split into six-month intervals.

2.    Rigorously sustainable programming

Healthy exit is all about sustainable programming. After the planning, partners implemented the difficult decisions about:

  • Unsustainable programmes to stop – Most NGO strategies are good at identifying new activities to start, but are notoriously poor at identifying which activities to stop. The exit process forced partners to be rigorous.
  • Sustainable programmes to handover to communities or local authorities and governments – Each of the partners also looked at which of their existing activities could be taken on by local stakeholders.
  • Not yet’ sustainable yet critical activities which NGO partners and communities need to fundraise forif they are to continue.

3.    Capacity development of local partners

To enable effective handover of activities during exit, EveryChild focused even more on strengthening the capacity of partners, communities and local stakeholders. Because they were leaving, capacity development genuinely focused on what partners and communities needed – not what the funder needed for smooth grant management. Some of the most important initiatives included: participatory action research with beneficiaries, leadership, strategy, resource mobilisation, and financial management.

4.    Influencing wider stakeholders at community, district and national level

Greater attention to advocacy is part of the shift towards sustainability. EveryChild has tried to build broader coalitions for change with wider stakeholders at community, district and national levels. It is these stakeholders who are left behind. They are the legacy.

5.    Systematic learning, documentation and sharing of good practice.

Partners monitored their sustainability plans relentlessly. Partners discussed progress every three months and updated the plans every six months. EveryChild provided external oversight to ensure the exit strategy was implemented properly and adjusted in the light of learning.

As part of its healthy exit, some country offices have invested in analysing and documenting programme learning. Some contracted external consultants to document achievements, lessons and best programme practices. One even commissioned a video documentary to distribute to key government officials and international NGOs.

In addition, in two countries, EveryChild hosted ‘closing ceremonies’ – a one-day Legacy Conference to share learning with local stakeholders from Government and NGOs.

6.    Institutional/Partnership closure activities

The final step towards exit involved closure activities. As well as final reports, EveryChild developed a number of processes and forms to assist them exit well and capture learning (such as Partnership Completion Report; Letter of Recommendation; Partnership Completion Final Skype Call, and Partnership Completion six-month Follow-up Call).

Finally, there were some administrative hygiene elements. This included finalising contractual issues, valuing and disposing of assets, closing bank accounts, legal deregistration; communication to auditors, tax authorities, and the general public; and leaving the office and returning the keys to the landlord.

The elusive Holy Grail

Sustainable exit is not easy. It cannot be manufactured, controlled or imposed from outside. It is about others taking responsibility and responding to community needs in a sustainable way. It is out of an NGO’s hands. All an NGO can do is create the conditions which make sustainable exit more likely to grow and emerge.

EveryChild would not claim to have reached the Holy Grail. But their journey reveals six critical steps we may need to take in our own quest for sustainable development.