For Concern Worldwide, a Time for Partnership

Siobhan Walsh, executive director of Concern Worldwide U.S., meets with Ethiopian students in 2006 as part of the organization’s non-formal education program. Photo by: Concern Worldwide

By the nature of its mission, Concern Worldwide needs to continuously innovate. As its U.S. branch chief Siobhan Walsh asserted, the cookie cutter approach will never work in dealing with humanitarian disasters, where each situation entails a tailored response.

The global recession emphasizes this need for innovation. Talking with Devex, Walsh acknowledged that the downturn has caused pain to the global relief group. The 41-year-old non-governmental organization, which works in 28 of the world's poorest nations, has to make hard decisions on where to cut back its operations due to reduced donor funding.

Walsh discussed the adjustments that Concern Worldwide is making to cope with the current economic situation, including collaborating with other NGOs in seeking funding. She also spoke about how the aid agency partners with donors and local organizations in implementing programs.

You moved to New York in 1995 to work for Concern Worldwide's U.S. office and became executive director of Concern Worldwide U.S. in 1996. How has the organization grown and evolved since then?

I remember the days of Concern when we were trying to make our budgets to survive for the following year. I did something I haven't done for a very long time, which is go into Grand Central Station and get a permit and go raising funds by doing public collections. We have grown from that to an organization last year, where we raised $20 million from U.S. donors. That was from foundations and also from our private donors and also from the U.S. government. So I would say the organization has changed dramatically in that time.

Who are your current partners? What kind of partners are you looking for, if any?

Internationally, Concern has a huge range of partners. Let me explain what I mean by that. We have partners who are our funding partners, which can be governments. It could be the U.S. government, Irish government, English government, the Swiss, the Japanese, or any of the European Union countries. But then we also have partners like the U.N., the World Food Program and UNICEF.

We also have other partners. For example, we have high schools. They're also our partners because we have an education program in high schools, and we partner with teachers and students to get them to think critically about international issues. We also have universities that are partners in terms of doing research with us.

Also the corporate sector-they're great partners with us. I'll give you one example. The Xerox Corp., last year, recognized that we were going to find ourselves in a situation where finances were very, very tight. They recognized that we need to make sure that our field staff continues to find innovative ways to tackle the problems on the ground and to try small pilot projects, to try new ideas and see if we can find other ways to solve some of the problems. For example, our colleagues in Tanzania are testing lemongrass seed and the relationship with that and how the rate of malaria is significantly lower. What they're doing is testing to see: Is there something in lemongrass? That's a test and a pilot, but it's something they're very interested in looking at.

The Xerox Foundation said, "Okay, what we need to do is make sure that organizations like Concern don't go backwards in terms of their progress in times when finances are tough." So they gave us something called an innovations grant, which we share with all of our field workers and invite them to submit an application for up to $100,000 every year for the next number of years, just to keep those small field pilots going. Now that would not be possible if the Xerox Foundation was not a partner recognizing that that's something that we needed to do.

We're very fortunate to have a lot of other good partners. The chairman of our board is Tom Moran of Mutual of America, and he's constantly looking for organizations that would complement what we're doing. It's not all about providing funds. Sometimes it's about services, it's about sharing their expertise with us in terms of how we can do better with our logistics and systems. We did a partnership with the Fritz Institute to train our logistics people to become better in terms of systematizing our operations across 28 countries.

How does implementation of programs work?

If there are organizations in country-local NGOs-what we try and do is we say, "Look, we can help build your capacity over time." There are some great organizations that we're working with in Ethiopia, for example, that care for orphans and street children. What we're doing is helping them build their capacity as a local NGO to be able to reach more street children in the longer term. We're not just providing funding to build schools and implement programs, but teaching them about financial systems and helping them to become attractive as partners to some of the bigger funders.

What we're always trying to do is trying to develop the capacity of the people who are going to be there. Ultimately, what we want to do is work ourselves out of a job in the end. We're a long way from that, but that's part of our mission and what we're trying to do.

What are the requirements for local organizations that want to work with Concern Worldwide, and how does an organization approach you?

It's very different in every single country-again, there's no one set of guidelines; in each country, it's very different. For example, in a place like Darfur or Chad there are very few partners, so Concern has to directly implement programs. In other countries, what we will do is send in one of our management team to do an assessment of an agency. You don't just hand over funding to an agency without assessing how much they can absorb, how many programs they could implement, and how much staff they have.

That happened too many times with the tsunami, where there was too much money floating around. There was money just flooding into partners and organizations without anybody looking at how much they were able to absorb and how much work they would be able to do well. It has to be not about quantity. It has to be about the quality of the work on the ground.

What are Concern Worldwide's future goals and priorities? Is there anything that will change soon such as streamlining or closing offices?

If this funding climate continues the way it is, I think we will be looking at cutting back operations overseas that we can't sustain. What we are doing a significant amount of is making sure there's international coherence and efficiencies of scale in everything we're doing. It's not that we didn't do that before this, but we're rethinking everything. Every office is spending an awful lot more time rethinking every single decision. Every single video that's produced, every single leaflet that's produced, every single story that comes in overseas-people are thinking and rethinking how that can be used, who you share it with. Can we produce something not just for here but for two other markets so we can save them resources or time? We're spending a lot more time talking to our colleagues in the field to see what's coming up next. We're seeing if we can take projects from four or five countries and pull them all together.

We're talking with other organizations and seeing if we can collaborate and develop a consortium in order to apply for funding. I think everybody's struggling together. There's a certain amount of solidarity in that. Everybody is trying to survive and find creative ways to work together. We've seen it in the corporate sector. We've seen all these mergers and partnerships, and I think in the NGO community, you're seeing the same. People are trying everything. And we have a lot less resources. I sometimes think that when you have less to work with you're more resourceful because you have to be.

How has the financial crisis affected your fundraising strategies? What are some new fundraising strategies that the organization is testing out?

We're not trying too many new things. Sometimes, in order to try new strategies, you have to be willing to test and take risks. And right now, I'm not willing to take any risks on any funding, if there is a sense that we'll end up losing more. We're very honest and open with our donors, and we're constantly communicating with them.

The only thing we're probably doing is we're doing more online communications. That's probably the only thing we're doing that's new, because I'm not prepared to take the chance of testing something new that might require an investment that may not have any return for us. I don't think this is the climate or the environment for doing that.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

One thing that gives me a lot of hope is to see the number of new partnerships that are developing between the private sector and NGOs in terms of trying to find new ways to tackle poverty. And I really am encouraged with the genuine interest and wanting to go and visit the countries, wanting to learn, and wanting to listen. More and more, we're seeing a situation where people are coming to the table, and they're willing to travel overseas to listen and stop and understand what the needs are, and then say, "How can we work with you to develop a program that meets their needs at their pace?" And to me, that's a great shift and change that I'm seeing-and it gives me an awful lot of hope.

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About the author

  • Ingridphoto

    Ingrid Ahlgren

    Ingrid is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. She worked as a staff writer for Vault.com from 2007 to 2009, helping to write guidebooks, including the "Vault Guide to the Top Government and Nonprofit Employers." Before moving to New York, she was a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine in Washington, D.C. Ingrid holds a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she grew up all over the world.