Can grassroots groups genuinely partner with NGOs?

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”
Aboriginal activist group / Lilla Watson (Watson, J 2007)

Can grassroots groups genuinely partner with NGOs?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question. There are plenty examples of attempted partnerships being done really badly, and of big NGOs causing serious harm to grassroots and community groups. But with NGOs responding to the political context with the increasing understanding that the UK needs strong movements building grassroots power, more and more are looking to connect to, partner with and support communities.

It’s not imposssible…

I don’t believe it is impossible for such partnerships to work, and this is borne out by interviews with people from marginalised communities (as cited in the paper below) who saw genuine benefits. But to get this right, big NGOs need to be prepared to put in the work and to transform themselves in the process.

Last autumn my colleague Jim Coe and I were asked to support a UK environmental NGO with translating their new organisational strategy, aiming to centre marginalised communities in their work, translating this into a more specific strategy for their campaigning and activist networks. We produced this paper sharing learning from NGOs, funders and grassroots groups who had done similar partnership work, to avoid replicating past mistakes. As interest in this kind of work is growing, I wanted to make it fully public, and the NGO kindly agreed as long as the contents were anonymised.

The grassroots groups we spoke to welcomed partnerships, as long as the right approach was taken

Although the community organisations we spoke with shared bad experiences with NGOs attempting to engage them in a fixed, extractive way without entering into genuine partnership, they remained open to the possibility this could be done well. Interviewees stressed that, although there are many things to consider, the potential benefits of deep partnership work and centring communities are huge – in terms of achieving the power shifts needed to tackle the climate crisis. Choosing not to follow through with this approach itself has grave risks – it is what is most needed.

“If they are not prepared to take risks now, then when? It’s clear what needs to be done, there’s no excuse not to push in that direction.”

We heard that there is no one correct way to build deep partnerships, but instead that this work requires entering into it with the right spirit. That means listening, being humble, being flexible, allocating the staff time and capacity necessary, budgeting to pay grassroots partners, committing for the long term, learning and adapting as you go. Below I share some of the core learnings in the hope that they might help grassroots groups & NGOs make decisions about whether or not to work together, and to help NGOs understand what is needed to do this work well.

5 learnings for partnerships between NGOs & grassroots groups

1) Clarify your vision, values and direction

If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s pretty difficult to get there, let alone travel there with anyone else. For a partnership to work, both parties need to be clear about the others’ vision, values, and how they see themselves contributing to the change they want to see.

“[struggles around climate are ] inextricable from the struggle against patriarchy, racism, colonialism and requires … building people’s power … [from a] class, feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonialist and international perspective”.

This work may include clearly defining terms so shared understanding is possible. NGOs and funders in particular can use a lot of jargon, and whereas it may appear they value and orient towards the same things as grassroots groups, a deeper exploration of definitions can expose significant differences. Such differences might mean partnership work isn’t possible, or they might not – either way but it’s useful to know where the differences are in order to work with them and avoid conflict later.

2) Shift culture and structure in large organisations first – or set up something new to do this work

“There is a huge arc of work that needs to happen before we even get to the ‘doing’.”

Big organisations are almost always structured hierarchically, with power held at the top of a chain of command and sign off processes flowing up this chain. Accountability flows upwards to senior managers and generally a board, placing it in tension with the reciprocity and mutual accountability needed for genuine partnership. Behind these structures sit cultures which, reflecting society at large, tend to have structural oppressions embedded in them – patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, ableism and so on.

This means in order to prepare for partnership work with marginalised grassroots groups, larger organisations need to consider how they can work in mutual accountability both structurally and culturally. As identified in It’s all About Power, changes to re-balance power inside an organisation need addressing through structure in policies, governance and distribution of resources, well as though organisational culture and through individuals’ consciousness and capabilities. All of this work should begin before partnering with marginalised groups, so that intersections of oppression are at least beginning to be addressed inside an organisation, and so that it is possible to enter into genuine mutual accountability (without everything needing signing off internally first).

To emphasise the importance of addressing flows of accountability, recent US research done by Han, McKenna & Oyakawa in Prisms of the People found that marginalised groups were better able to build their own power when they were only accountable to grassroots membership. This was distorted and weakened by accountability flowing to a central leadership or funders.

Some interviewees suggested it would be easier for organisations to set up a new arms-length project structured differently to do this work. This is an option definitely worth considering – it removes concerns about brand and reputation, could help ease partners reluctance to engage, and would allow staff autonomy to work with marginalised communities in more relationship-centred ways.

3) Embrace critique and tension to learn

Grassroots groups are often wary of partnering with large organisations because of their historic experiences and the reputation of NGOs (in general and specifics). In the UK there is widespread feeling that NGOs are extractive, taking from the grassroots without giving back, and that they don’t understand the root causes of many issues they are working on (such as colonialism), or how these show up in their own organisations.

These tensions provide a backdrop to any partnership work with grassroots groups, and so need acknowledging. Trust can only be built by demonstrating reflectivity, willingness to learn and demonstrating goodwill through actions. We heard that organisations should expect to be called out but that this should be viewed constructively as a learning experience. Those organisations we spoke with who had been called out in such partnerships found this challenge to be a valuable learning experience.

4) Build relationships and reciprocity

Trust is absolutely key, and this only comes from building reciprocal personal relationships. Although organisations might wish to enter into a partnership, actual relationships are held by individuals. The more relationships there are between organisations, the greater the strength of the partnership. Building relationships takes time, and can’t be rushed.

“Both parties have something to learn… we’re talking about work done in a community for years, histories, networks of trust – [X NGO staff should] share the same thing from X NGO about its history… it’s like going on a date! Getting to know each other.”

For many interviewees building trust meant being present, listening, and being open to others’ agendas. In turn, that means coming in a spirit of solidarity and respect, and embracing two-way flows of communications and influence. When NGOs enter into partnerships thinking they have all the expertise and resources to share, that creates a power imbalance and negates the possibility of the learning they could benefit from in the relationship. When NGOs take a ‘powerful giver’ approach expecting a grassroots group to be a ‘grateful receiver’ that is a recipe for failure.

Relationships can be messy and there is a wisdom in knowing when to continue to develop them and when to wind them up. All this needs considering, including how to keep channels of communication open in partnerships when people from both sides move on from their organisation or group. Some interviewees also told us that relationships should be spread across levels of organisations with hierarchy, so they are not gate kept by senior managers or farmed out to junior staff.

5) Discuss what support grassroots groups want from NGOs

This conversation needs to start with the acknowledgement of all the ways NGOs can benefit from the partnership with a grassroots group or marginalised community – these relationships are reciprocal. Then it can be answered through dialogue – it will depend on the group and circumstances. Some grassroots groups might welcome facilitated access to decision makers, or NGOs playing a convening role to bring different groups and organisations together. Others may prefer small grants to resource their own work, access to meeting spaces, training in specific areas, or offers of lending organisational capacity (such as promoting events or actions to NGO supporters, or attracting media attention). Some interviewees stressed the importance of paying people from marginalised groups for their time, and this is something I always budget into my own work.

As ever, I’d love to hear from you if this was helpful or if it really wasn’t – have you had a bad experience of partnership or a good one? Do you think it’s even possible to do this work well? Comment below or continue the conversation with me on Twitter.

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