How to build strong relationships with grassroots organizations

Re-posting this series from the early days of how-matters.org

Adapted from: The Barefoot Collective. (2009). The Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change. Cape Town: Community Development Resource Association. www.barefootguide.org

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In order to build authentic relationships with grassroots organizations, these qualities, attitudes and abilities will really make a difference:

1. Listen actively and openly.

When was the last time you were really listened to? The kind of listening where the other person was not judging or giving advice too quickly and was genuinely interested in what you had to say, without any agenda other than truly wanting to understand and help you?

Really trying (and wanting) to listen can become a deeply rewarding experience and is the quickest way to connect to the humanity in others and ourselves. In-depth listening can be the one of the greatest gifts you can give in working with people in grassroots organizations around the world. We don’t do it enough.

2. Put local ownership first.

A community’s ownership and investment in finding its own solutions to local problems is essential to any chance of sustainability. Grassroots organizations are more likely to be responsive to people’s true needs, mobilize local resources, inspire local ownership, and build community strength in a variety of ways. As outsiders and as donors, we need to be more significantly more mindful of how we undermine local ownership and then…stop doing it!

3. Bring honesty, trustworthiness, integrity... and doubt!

You can build trust through being worthy of trust in all that you do, and undertake to do – honesty, openness and integrity are key. Many organizations or communities have negative experiences of outsiders and, despite the warmth they might display towards you, they may find it very difficult to open up to you.

Being completely honest about what you can and can’t offer may require courage and frankness. Being transparent about your own self-doubts can encourage a new degree of honesty in others.

Sometimes, as resourced outsiders, when we meet with people suffering from deprivation, we create high expectations, in them and in ourselves. Or we feel completely helpless in not being able to offer enough and in so doing may even reinforce others’ feelings of hopelessness.

So what do we do? We don’t come with answers, but if we are to be of any use, it will be because people come to trust us and through honest conversation and support we help people to find their own way forward.

4. Assume the best first.

Grassroots organizations, often under-resourced and under-recognized, face immense challenges in providing support to vulnerable families at the local level. Yet we as outsiders often express frustration or impatience if an organization does not appear to be responding, progressing or developing to our expectations. Our own agendas, prejudices, biases, stereotypes, and projections can all impede our ability to see “what is.” Rather we focus on “what is not.” Therefore, it is important to ground ourselves in valuing the strengths and capacities that each grassroots organizations brings to the immense and complex work of helping people.

5. Be curious.

Individuals, organizations, communities and partnerships are all complex and deeply fascinating… if we choose to see them as such. To what extent do we have a real and authentic interest, a deep curiosity in getting to know real people? The more curious we are, the more potential we have to see and reveal what is really happening with grassroots initiatives on the ground.

Being appreciatively curious rather than appearing nosey or meddlesome is a clear indication of your intention to learn from another person or group. Genuine and respectful curiosity is infectious!

6. Practice self-reflection first.

Self-awareness enables us to relate to others from a centre of strength. Having a good relationship with yourself is the foundation for strong relationships with grassroots organizations. If you feel good about yourself, it is much easier to see the good in people and treat them with respect. If you do not, it is common to project this on to others, finding problems with them. In fact, good intentions, without a necessary level of self-awareness, can easily distort power in relationships.

7. Make time your friend.

Forming and maintaining trusting relationships not only takes time, but also takes quality time. Be patient about the time it takes to establish and maintain the quality of relationship desired. Most importantly, accept that the time needed for behavioral and social changes does not fit in 1-3 year project cycles.

8. See organizations as living systems.

If we see an organization as a machine (consciously or not) then we pay attention only to the visible things like its structure, its governance and decision-making procedures, the formal policies, and the workplans. Of course these more visible characteristics are important, but if we want to really understand what makes an organization tick, we also have to relate to these characteristics:

  • The actual practice – not only what the plan says but its “real work” and the deeper thinking behind the doing;
  • The actual culture, values and principles which guide the behaviors and actions of people in the organization;
  • The human relationships between the people and between the organization and the outside world;
  • The organization’s development – the way it responds, learns, grows and changes over time.

9. Expect and use language and culture differences.

Relationships can be hindered or broken over the smallest of misunderstandings, the chances of which are amplified if working cross-culturally. It helps to look out for different meanings for the same words in different cultures, different notions of body language and personal space, and ultimately, the way in which things are done. In many strongly traditional cultures, for example, if you don’t go through extended greetings people will not be very open to your questions or suggestions. Don’t be afraid to admit it or ask for feedback when you’ve flubbed up. And when it happens (because inevitably it will), laugh at yourself and give permission to others to laugh at you—it makes you more human!

10. Encourage, encourage, encourage!

The work of improving the lives of families and communities can often be difficult, slow, and heartbreaking, however rewarding. For people working in grassroots organizations in resource-poor settings, the challenges may feel overwhelming at times, with all the people coming by their home or office to ask for help, or the volunteers who need supplies, or the board member who has questions, and of course the donor who needs a report. But sometimes the most important thing we can do is to show “care for the caregivers” (both physically and emotionally) to reduce stress and prevent burnout. A kind word, a listening ear, or an honest compliment goes SOOOOO far. Encourage people to renew their commitment by also caring for themselves. Ultimately, people just need more recognition for the good work that they do. Find ways to demonstrate how you admire, honor and support the amazing work that grassroots organizations do every day!

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This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/02/23/strong-relationships-grassroo...

***

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Tags: aid, assistance, building, capacity, community, community-based, development, donors, effectiveness, enterprise, More…foreign, grassroots, international, organizational, organizations, ownership, participation, philanthropy, social, workers

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Comment by Megan E Malone on February 29, 2012 at 12:31am

It is nice to see what grassroots advocates do written out well.  I always have a hard time explaining why the grassroots approach is so crucial to the success of NGOs.  Thank you!

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on February 25, 2012 at 6:16pm

@Pascal - I indeed think "accompaniment" is what we should be aiming for when it comes to our helping relationships. Walking with people is so much different from "building their capacity", no? See: http://www.hiidunia.com/2010/08/understanding-organizational-develo...

Comment by ANDEBO PAX PASCAL on February 25, 2012 at 7:28am

It is very insightful in assessing the relationship of grassroots organizations with the people they are involved with. Could it be right to call it accompaniment?

Comment by Sheela Daskara on February 24, 2012 at 6:11pm

Thanks for posting this. Very helpful to understand what we do.

Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on February 24, 2012 at 5:00pm

Thanks all for your comments. Of course, in any relationship, building trust is a long-term process. In international aid and cross-cultural relationships, this requires a deep consciousness about power asymmetries that can occur within our "helping" relationships. 
You might also be interested in this article on how to recognize "community ownership":http://www.how-matters.org/2010/09/13/spotting-community-ownership/

Comment by carla funk on February 24, 2012 at 2:33pm

This really does cut to the heart of the difficulties (and pleasures) of working with grassroots organizations, but in the end isn't it like any other relationship that we as humans forge? Difference described here is forging them in areas outside of our personal culture (and hence comfort and understanding) zone with respect and understanding. Nicely summed up and excellent points to remember... thanks!

Comment by Roselyn Mungai on February 24, 2012 at 10:16am

This is the approach that we at Act!  here in Kenya align ourselves to.  Respect and Honesty being at the heart of our dealings with the communities, and this means full disclosure of intentions at the project level, and the expected results, so that community's are not ambushed at ay stage in the project cycle.  A very transformative article.

Comment by GOPI KANTA GHOSH on February 24, 2012 at 8:04am

Thanks...a good guidance to follow...

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