Joanne Sonenshine is CEO of Connective Impact, a membership organization that provides resources, visibility, and intelligence to demystify the funding landscape, and to help mobilize partnerships to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity worldwide.
Disclaimer: This article was submitted to WorkwithUSAID.org as a guest blog post. The views expressed by WorkwithUSAID.org guest blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government.
Last week, Connective Impact members participated in a Reverse Industry Day (RID) with USAID. An RID is a method USAID uses to help inform acquisition and award staff on what’s working well and what can be improved. Given the ongoing effort USAID is making to put local communities at the heart of their funding, and the obvious overlap with the community-level development work of our members, I was ecstatic—and I knew we were in for a rich and engaging discussion.
Joining me for the RID were representatives from Fonkoze, Brac, Ethical Apparel Africa, iDE, Natun, and FUNDES. These are among the 145 organizations that Connective Impact supports in their quest for donor support. In the spirit of collaborative problem-solving, our members shared with more than 160 USAID staff their lessons learned from working with USAID, ideas for future engagement, recommendations for USAID to engage more holistically and effectively at the local level, and creative solutions to some of USAID’s bureaucratic challenges.
I never would have guessed that our comments would have been so well-received, given how honest—and, in some cases, raw—they were. I also didn’t expect USAID staff to respond so encouragingly and be so open to receiving our recommendations. The timing was ripe, as well, because this week, USAID is releasing its Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, which will provide a shared framework to guide how USAID makes decisions about why and how to invest in the capacity of local actors based on their goals and not their capacity to compete for USAID funding. The questions from USAID staff often pointed at what’s still needed in that sense.
Below I’ve outlined key elements of the discussion, including both the successes and the challenges that were identified.
What’s Working Well
- Networks and collaboration: Our presenters highlighted how USAID is helping build connections among partners, extending networks, and helping engage in new and creative collaborations (especially with the private sector).
- Open-mindedness: USAID provides strong support around marketing and communications, and the Agency is open to new ideas and opportunities for program-related design and delivery.
- Flexibility: Another point that came up several times was how flexible and accessible USAID Missions have been to existing partners throughout COVID, and embracing pivots or programmatic changes during the last couple of years.
Recommendations for Improvement
Some of the biggest areas for improvement were around how effective engagement can be operationalized and scaled. USAID Missions are rarely in touch directly with local partners, so in most cases the large, prime contractors manage the relationships with the Agency. This impedes smaller local partners from getting guidance directly from the Mission. In many cases, local organizations may not understand all of USAID’s program rules, which can get in the way of implementation or may lead to difficulties in tracking their impact in the way USAID prefers. It’s then up to the primes to manage these administrative questions, which they don’t often want to deal with. There are clear opportunities to improve upon this process, making timelines more reasonable, proposals simpler to write and submit, budgets cleaner, and reporting less onerous. None of this was a surprise to USAID.
Specific recommendations included the following:
- Make Requests for Applications (RFAs)—often called Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs)—more flexible, smaller, and more relevant for local partners.
- Make processes more applicable and accessible for local partners.
- Streamline coordination among partners.
- Be very clear on how USAID defines localization in each place where they work.
- Provide more (paid) lead time for local partners to get staffed up and ready to take on a USAID project.
- Currently, many local partners use unrestricted funds to fundraise, prepare, and report to USAID or similar larger funders. Coming up with other ways to compensate local partners for their time in co-creation processes, and onboarding/offboarding, would allow them to use their unrestricted funding in other ways.
- Assure local partners that they are valued and that their expertise is important to the collaboration.
- Staff of local organizations can feel intimidated by USAID. According to Erin Mooney, Executive Director of Natun in Guatemala, “It will take years to combat the current power imbalance and the fear and the lack of respect that local staff feel in the grantee/funder relationship…. we all know that localization is needed, wanted, and absolutely the right thing for USAID to commit to, but trust and respect for local orgs and especially local staff must be built and reiterated again and again.” If USAID wants to engage technical teams at the local level, or even more, community participants, they must find ways to reduce the power imbalance and level the playing field.
All of us left the discussion optimistic that USAID will take forward our members’ recommendations, and several follow-up calls were being scheduled between USAID and our members. What’s clear from this discussion is that we are all committed to the same goal—improving lives and expanding opportunities for communities most in need. Implementing the changes we discussed will take time, patience, and fortitude, but our members are committed to working collaboratively with the Agency toward this goal.