Coordination Among Non-Profits: Why we Need Less of it, not More

Too Much of a Good Thing

“We need to coordinate more”, they say. “Avoid reinventing the wheel”. “Make sure we don’t confuse the ‘beneficiary’”.

I am ready to admit there is some theoretical value behind the idea of coordination. However, such value diminishes rapidly as organizations shift their core business to “coordination” and cacophonies of “coordination professionals” descend upon projects creating noise and hogging everyone’s bandwidth. Heavy on jargon & thin on practical solutions, they are halting the whole thing to a grind, inducing Chronic Coordination Comatose (CCC) across the industry.

Donors, of course, carry much of the fault for incentivizing or even demanding more of the stuff, even while imposing their own systems on their recipients, complete with huddles of “technical advisers” and arcane “coordination frameworks”.

The whole thing can be amusing: a chat with any jaded insider will bring out countless coordination anecdotes, many of them hilarious. But the truth is that our obsession with coordination creates real obstacles to different thinking and innovation in a world that needs both desperately. And that is a big problem.

Signs of over-coordination

Here is how you can tell when coordination is doing more harm than good (this applies to both organizations and individuals):

  1. Coordinators are more concerned with what others are doing rather than what they are doing. This is a classic. How much time is spent analyzing/ pulling apart other organization’s projects? vs. How much time is spent developing and implementing their own projects? If more than 10% goes to former, we are in dangerous territory.
  2. Coordinators are quick to point out problems but have no solutions to propose. After spending all that time analyzing other people’s projects, problems become obvious and it is only natural to think about all the theoretical reasons why those projects will not work and should not be implemented. This is the surest way there is to kill innovation.
  3. Coordinators divide their work between sending emails about meetings and having meetings about emails – this is a cliché: the overworked, ring-eyed coordinator doing 12h/ day of email. When they are not emailing, they are in meetings. Often, they are in meetings, on their emails. They rarely have time to interact with anyone outside the “coordination community” (yeah, that’s a thing). Staff. Suppliers. Implementers. The proverbial “beneficiary”. Forever pushed down in the backlog because at the heart of coordination, there is always email to be sent. This triggers a positive feedback loop that leads to more emails, more meetings.
  4. Coordinators have no clear skills. What are the competitive advantages of a coordination organization? What are the skills of the professional coordinator? How does one quantify that? How do you tell a good coordinator/ coordinating organization from a sub-optimal one?
  5. They abuse their position of power. This industry has a complicated power dynamic – donors call the shots but government needs to keep face. Technical advisers green-light things (“on behalf of the Government”) but they claim they simply “advise”. Agencies fund, advise and implement (no conflicts there). And everyone plays a role in coordinating it all. This leads to a tricky reality in which small players and outsiders (often local entrepreneurs) who do not know how to navigate it all get burned quickly, along with whatever useful idea they may have. It is an incumbents’ game and incumbents alone know how to play it.
  6. Coordinators are quick to point the finger. A special scorn is reserved for local, profit-driven entrepreneurs. But in a pinch, the government will do. This is particularly mystifying, since every other time their decisions are “on behalf of the government”. Government representatives are in a particularly tricky position – swamped in micromanaging “technical advisers”, forced on them as a condition for funding, locked in endless coordination processes (not to mention all that email) – they have little space to do anything except bid their time until the day they either join the coordinators (for a better pay) or drift off, bitter at the whole industry.

What can you do about it?

We can sit here all day and complain about the whole thing. But is there something we can do about it? Something each of us, in our daily lives can do about it? Here are a few easy things each of us can do right now:

  1. Measure outputs and only outputs. Hold yourself and others accountable for outputs alone. If you supervise a team, hold them to the same standards. (More on this here)
  2. Never patronize the poor – This is something I have been agitating about for years (here, for example). Do not speak on anyone’s behalf. I fact don’t let anyone speak on anyone’s behalf – let data do the talking. Do and demand market research often, real time if possible. Do or demand continuous adjustment based on these research. Thoughtful you are worried the “beneficiary” gets confused? You can be trusted to not get confused by choice. Why would the poor be any different? And how come you get to make these choice on their behalf?
  3. Do real work. Examine your work. Pick a day or two every week when you do not send any emails. Not one email. You may not be able to control the inflow, but you can surely control the outflow. Call people instead. Go and see them. Resist the urge to create work for other people (i.e. “coordinate”). Do it yourself, even if you feel it is below your level. In fact do this especially if you feel it is below your level. Look at it as an experiment – see what happens.
  4. Speak to donors. Newsflash: Donors respond to arguments. I never met one who didn’t. Articulate your arguments and make them often. In fact, cut the “I hate it but donors want me to do this this” BS already. If you really worry that your donors will defund you, copy/ paste this paragraph in your next report, replacing text in square brackets with whatever is applicable: “We believe significant resources in our sector are already dedicated to coordination efforts, which we support. We believe however that at this moment a better way for us as an organization to spend precious resources is [stuff your organization is really good at]. Our organization takes pride in our [stuff your organization is really good at] core business and we believe both [donor] and [beneficiary communities] will be better served by [stuff your organization is really good at]. We also believe that we will generate enough output data from our activities to support this decision. To ensure that our work will not undermine future coordination efforts we are hereby committing to publicize this data and share our insights and results publicly”. Yeah, maybe there is a freak donor out there that will actually defund you for doing this. But in the long run your organization will be better off if that happens: unburdened by vague coordination deliverables, you can actually focus on your core business.
  5. Finally, Keep it real. Focus on what you do well. Articulate your arguments to your partners, donors. Be transparent about your work. Invest in and act on insights. Build around the client experience. Publicize your data and your results. Admit and analyze your failures. Invite debate about your work. Engage with others – even online.

If we all do all that, coordination could become an organic thing, as resources will slowly chase results and people will sharpen their respective edges to get them. Imagine all the resources we’d save along the way and the bandwidth we’d free up for everyone to actually develop, sharpen and apply their skills. And, in the process, maybe we manage to allow for more different thinking that could usher in the future.

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