Friday, January 31, 2014

Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, So How Can we Cultivate it in the Model Forest? Part 1.

The predominant question on the agendas of small- and medium-sized non-for-profits around the world is “where will our funding come from?” The reasons for this increased emphasis on financial sustainability are two-fold. On the one hand, the financial squeeze that has occurred as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown has left traditional donors, such as governments and bilateral organizations, with a renewed sense of frugality. On the other hand, the increasingly globalized marketplace, and the associated growth of internet-based funding, has made the competition for funding more intense. This changing funding paradigm is occurring at a time when major international corporations and newly created social enterprises are doubling their efforts on creating societal value through their operations. Corporations, in particular, have started evolving away from arguably ineffective corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives towards more deeply integrating themselves in the economies and societies in which they operate. Financially squeezed governments and bilateral aid organizations are cutting funding, with the expectation that corporations will step in to “fill the gap”.

While this changing landscape presents a new degree of uncertainty for non-for-profits, the one thing that is certain is that a continued reliance on traditional funding sources will put the financial stability of these organizations in question. Instead, today’s non-for-profits must diversify their funding sources to include, for example, engagement with private sector organizations, including “evil” corporations, or engagement with potential donors from around the world through internet-based sources, such as crowdfunding. The challenge for non-for-profits in implementing these new approaches is whether these organizations, which are relatively unaccustomed to rapid change, can change their long-standing operating and business models to accommodate these new market forces.

Needless to say, answering the “where will our funding come from?” question for the Reventazón Model Forest will be both motivating and challenging.

Written By: 
Matija Kamikovski
Consultant La Red Bosque Modelo Ibero-Americano, Cuso International
Management Consultant, Deloitte

For over 20 years the Model Forest concept has been highly adaptable in terms of responding to the evolving needs of local actors as political, economic and physical landscapes change. This adaptability makes me optimistic to believe that the Model Forest concept can too, adapt and thrive in this precarious funding climate. The question is how?

This simple question does not have a simple answer. However, I think the first step in funding sustainability for Reventazón Model Forest, and perhaps all Model Forests , is to critically analyze the environment in which they operate and from there begin thinking outside the box.

Thinking Outside the Box
The Model Forest concept, created in the early 1990s, was born out of crisis and conflict in Canada's forest sector. This innovative process was designed as a neutral social platform where government, private companies, Aboriginals and other social actors, could sit around the same table and talk to one another as equals. In other words, someone was thinking way outside the box. What started with 10 Model Forests in Canada has grown into a worldwide network of over 65 Model Forests on 5 continents.

Thus, evaporating funding from typical sources can be seen as an opportunity, to again, think outside the box. As Matija discusses, the funding environment is changing, that I think is common knowledge in the NGO and international development sectors. However, I think it is absolutely critical to think about what is the current structure? How does it operate? Why does it operate this way? Where is the Model Forest within that structure? and then begin to assess: What are the shortcomings of that structure? How have those shortcomings moulded the activities of the organization? 

Going beyond the academic literature, history lectures and media criticism of aid ineffectiveness, there are two Ted Talks that have really stood out and cast a different light on this topic. Both have inspired me to think outside the box and make a little bit more sense of where Reventazón and the Model Forest concept fit into this very big, complex picture of the not-for-profit and development sectors.

The first is Dan Pallotta, who argues that our approach to charities and Not-for-Profits (NFPs) is dead wrong. He contextualizes not-for-profits within our society and then compares them to private sector, revealing and challenging the 'social taboos' placed on NFPs. For example he asks why it is okay for businesses to have high overhead and not NFPs? Or why advertising to raise revenue in the private sector is percieved as advantageous, but not for NFPs? I won't go into any more details here, but essentially his point is that we, as a society need to think differently about NFPs. Without doing so, we will not be able to take a significant step forward in realizing the visions of NFPs, such as providing every human with clean drinking water, curing cancer or conserving the rainforest.

Dan Pallota's perspective presents NFPs with a unique opportunity within this uncertain funding climate. An opportunity for NFPs to liberate themselves. With university only two years behind me, working the 9-5 was quite a change from burning the midnight oil. Yet, I also felt (and still do in some ways) more constrained, there were things in the 'working world' that just didn't make sense to me. Why was there so much paperwork? Why did things have to get approved by 7 different people? Why did strategic plans and annual reports have to be so dry that they practically crumpled in your hands? Of course we need strategic plans, and some sort of approval process and all of that creates paperwork. But I can't help but wonder, do we need all of it? Perhaps NFPs can learn from the private sector in this regard. How can we streamline the organizational structures of our NFPs to minimalize the paper, creating more time for the "overhead" staff to be innovating and raising funds?

"If you prohibit failure, you kill innovation. If you kill innovation, you can't raise more revenue." -Dan Pallota

Failure. Everyone talks about "Has aid failed?" and I admit that was the extent I had thought about failure in the development context, yet David Damberger forces you to dive deeper and look at failure within NFPs. He asks what happens when an NGO admits failure? His talk brilliantly discusses the larger question of development aid through projects he worked on in India and Malawi, that ultimately, failed. The man is in tears as he admits that his project, funded through CIDA and independent donors, failed. Once again, failure, in the private sector, is normal, it is even encouraged because that is how new products, new solutions are innovated, yet in NFP sector it is kept quiet. No one wants to hear that the $200 they donated to that village in Africa didn't help them get running water, or that the $5 million CIDA project to educate children didn't have any long-term success. So essentially, we are in denial. Of course NFPs make mistakes, projects fail, but how are we supposed to make advances towards our goals if we are not allowed to try anything new? And perhaps more importantly share both the successes and failures within and amongst organizations. David's organization now publishes an annual Failure Report, as well as started a website, Admitting Failure where people can share their project failures.

This inspires me in two ways. The first is that this talk made me realize how shallow the donor-recipient relationship is. Donors, want something sexy, with pretty pictures to splash all over their website and sustainability reports. Donors want a one-night-stand, something that will give them quick tangible result. This created a lot of problems for me, because Model Forests have many non-tangible benefits. So I have been trying to figure out how to make the Model Forest sexier, maybe slim down the trees, try a different type of forest to find something tangible. But hey, maybe Model Forests aren't that sexy. They are complicated, they take trust, time and commitment to yield results, but when they do, those results are long lasting. Model Forests are the real deal, the "marriage material" if you will. Yep, I just made that analogy. A Model Forest will never be a one-night stand, sorry, we just aren't that type. So, that being said, how do we use this to our advantage in order to diversify our funding? How do we sell this to potential funders?

The second is that I think the perfect place to admit failure is in a Model Forest. It is a neutral platform where honest conversation between stakeholders is encouraged, and through that collaboration there are opportunities to innovate and try new things. Sometimes they will work, and sometimes they won't.

All this being said, I still don't know how Reventazón Model Forest will acquire and diversify its funding sources. But, I am beginning to think outside the box, and I think that is the first step to fundamentally changing the way we measure the success or failure of NGOs. My goal is that Reventazón Model Forest will jump outside the box this year.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beach Burpees. What's your New Year Resolution?

To ring in 2014, I decided to do 20+14 (34) Beach Burpees in Puerto Viejo Costa Rica.

Motivation #1: Start off the year with results instead of excuses.
Motivation #2: Help meet my fundraising goal of $2000 for Cuso International 

For every $1 donated to my fundraising page between now and my next beach trip (probably in a month or two) I will do a Beach Burpee! 

$1 = 1 Beach Burpee 

Want to see me do 100 in a row? 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Sun Sets on 2013

"What an amazing year" I thought to myself, sitting on a washed up log, enjoying my last ice cream of 2013, and watching the sun descend behind the rainforest. I reflected rather profoundly on the fleeting year over my two weeks in Puerto Viejo. Whether I was lying on the beach, lying in a hammock or biking in between, my mind was replaying the highest and lowest moments of 2013, over and over like a broken record. Usually my mind gravitates towards the future, what will be, what could be, but rarely about what was. I found it rather uncomfortable, and very bitter-sweet, as 2013 may have been the most vibrant year in my 23-year-old life. For the first time there was no plan, no obligations, no road map. A part of me felt scared, overwhelmed and anxious. But a bigger part of me felt liberated and exhilarated with an appetite for exploration.