Challenges faced by grassroots organizations

I understand LGUs when they say managing their localities is a huge balancing act.  Grassroots or community driven development is the same.  You deal with diversity – donor/s, the government, partner agencies, local groups and organizations, individual members of communities – with differing and conflicting needs, wants, and goals set in a constantly changing social, economic, and political environment and the challenge is to get everyone to common ground even while, if you’re an organization, you’re thinking of ways to survive, adapt or innovate, and grow.

I’ve managed to land in this work this year.  A former colleague laughed when I told him this because when I was still with the HQ of an INGO, I was the loudest advocate of community participation and HQ staff i.e. senior advisers becoming more visible in the field in the name of grassroots development.

How are you feeling, he joked.  Don’t ask, I said.

Still, we rise to the occasion and do what must be done.  Besides, when I see the children and young people the organization has put to school and developed in various ways and who we now tap as peer educators, I’m renewed.

I’ve made initial observations and have put together this list of elements (you may want to check back now and then as it’s a growing list) that grassroots organizations must attend to in order to develop, survive, and grow:

  1. Ownership as in ownership of the organization, it’s vision, mission, goal, strategies.

To demonstrate:  A critical submission to our Donor is due this week and according to the staff in charge completion at the field was not even half done. Based on feedback by field staff, the delay is traced to community volunteers i.e. parents of sponsored children refusing to deliver any further because they heard that there were no funds allocated for the task. My heart sank on hearing this, because (1) the task is not new. They’ve been doing it every year since 20+ years ago.  These folks (who are provided financial incentives) citing money as a hindrance (when it’s actually not) toward the closure of their organization have just shown what really mattered to them; (2) our field staff, essentially area managers, had not proactively addressed the issue and have actually waited to inform me at the last minute; (3) where were the BOT (they come from and reside in the covered municipalities and majority of them are also volunteers in the task)?  I immediately made a round via telecon of the BOT members in the areas and reminded them that funds for the task is not an issue – we will seek a solution and consider that done – and to immediately mobilize back the parents / volunteers to complete the task because in the final analysis everything that we’re doing in the organization is toward their children’s and communities’ development. I wanted to add, please don’t wait for me to tell you to go out and show leadership. But I didn’t (because of the huge balancing act).

The above is a classic case for the min-max principle in which folks gravitate toward projects or tasks that deliver maximum results for minimum effort.  They’ve been provided free lunches for too long that the instance they see nothing set on the table they go blame or worse attack the host or cook.  Free lunches over a long period of time kills initiative.  Folks are kept from taking responsibility of their situation.  Free lunches also distort perspective.  Individuals fail to develop among themselves collective concern for the group i.e. the ability to foresee the impact of their actions on the organization.  Each is only concerned in the rumblings of his or her own stomach.

For organization staff as well, we could get used to being told and controlled by our bosses into the direction they say is the best path that when left on our own out there we feel helpless even in the face of challenges that are otherwise within our responsibility to resolve.  We’ve stopped owning our thoughts and actions.

What to do? Ownership should’ve been instilled 20 years ago and sustained throughout. I thought it rather too late now to march out there in the field and make a case for ownership.  Nonetheless, the organization’s leaders and managers – BOT, staff – play a critical role in this.  For starters, the BOT ought to feel more responsible for organizational direction and to be more strategic and forward looking in their thinking.  But what to do when the BOT is not your typical corporate BOD but rather farmers who were high school drop outs now in their 50s and 60s?  This brings me to the second element.

2.  Governance.  The specific governance concern I’d like to focus on is, why is Board ineffectiveness a recurring problem despite training?

For grassroots organizations with BOTs comprised of what we call as “the masses” i.e. farmers with at most a high school education, the problem may be more of governance model than of Board performance.  In other words, the traditional approach of organizational governance i.e. corporate BOD model may not be the appropriate model for non-profit/civil society/grassroots organizations.

Grassroots organizations are founded, and thrive, on the values of democratic governance, community participation and empowerment, as well as feedback and learning which clash with the top-down and command and control dynamic of the traditional or corporate governance model.  The nature of the organization alone i.e. non-profit lends an organizational ethic or culture different from an organization which is put up primarily to make profit.  Furthermore, the BOTs are elected by the grassroots i.e. people in the communities thus where their power to represent is derived.  Such power is profoundly different (and perhaps greater) than that which is held by corporate BODs.

In any case, what this implies is that the organizational governance model needs to be meaningful and consistent with the organization’s vision, mission, values and strategies as well as the organization’s membership or constituency.  Dissonance in these leads to confusion in purpose, roles, etc. among the BOT, management and staff, even members in the communities.

Thus, BOT trainings that were provided to bridge capacity gaps in organizational governance following the traditional or corporate model have not been the appropriate training support.  In the meantime, capacity needs of the BOT in fulfilling it’s role under the community driven governance model remains un-addressed.

The metaphor for this situation is, hammering in a square peg into a round hole.  One can smoothen the peg’s edges and force it in but there are consequences to face.

3.  Risk Oversight and Management.  (more of this soon)

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