Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why NGOs Are Hesitant to Share Lessons Learned

Ricardo Wilson-Grau Consulting (17 April 2007 from CSO survey) asked a civil society organizations (CSOs) if they had lessons learned and, if so, how many were not from just "better practices" but just as importantly from "bad practices." Surprisingly, virtually none of the CSOs reported sharing "bad practices" as one aspect of lessons learned.
A follow-up question was asked: Why are so few CSOs willing to share their "bad practices" so that others can learn from them. The question had 5 closed-ended responses and 1 open-ended response. The result were:
  1. Organizations are reluctant to think about negative experiences - 36.6%
  2. They are uncomfortable sharing weaknesses with a donor - 64.1%
  3. They are uncomfortable sharing weaknesses with other organizations - 57.3%
  4. Organizations have little information and knowledge available to explain failures - 36.6%
  5. Organizations are interested in what does work and not in spending time on what does not - 35.9% 
  6. Other: 36.6% were by and large nuances of the five multiple choice options above.
In a blog by Daniel O'Neil (The Change Agent), he cites the paper, "Lessons Not Learned: Why don't NGO workers collaborate more?" by Wade Channell. In this paper, Wade highlights why development workers are lousy at learning from each other. Although we might be friends and socialize together, the world of international development workers does not foster learning. He cited four problems of learning:
  • Incentives for Knowing, But Not for Learning
  • High Incentives for Repetition, Low Incentives for Innovation
  • High Incentives for Guarding Information
  • Disconnection between Performance and Awards
All too often staff are hired because of their proficiency in an area, and due to the pace of project implementation, there is little time or incentive to read, reflect and interact with others in a learning process. Access to conferences, workshops, and journals for those workers in the field are both a physical and financial challenge. Thus, bad practices can "creep" into projects because staff are not able to keep up-to-date.

As repetition, Daniel states, "Donors only want to fund proven successes and NGOs write their proposals to satisfy what the donor wants to hear. This is especially critical when entering a competitive bid. The NGOs seek to divine what the donor wants to hear, rather than to come up with the best approach. The Gates Foundation has made significant waves because they are willing to fund projects that take risky approaches."

When it comes to guarding information, occasionally, project staff and NGOs are not willing to share project evaluations due to potentially unfavorable findings. Also, there are not many forums to share project evaluations even with the same organization so "bad practices" can be avoided.

Finally, the fear is that to expose "bad practices" and the lessons learned from that will not be rewarded. Certainly, good planning should reduce bad practices, but no project can be completely flawless.

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