Small Teams, Big Change
Long-time volunteer Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed recently wrote about his experiences on project evaluations and what drives his involvement with ADP. He insightfully points that out “We can’t meaningfully address poverty if only four or five organizations get all the funding”. Read more of what he has to say in his article, that was printed in one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers – The Nation on October 2nd, 2014.
Small Teams, Big Change
By Nabeel Shakeel Ahmed
It was one of those lines that will probably stay with me throughout my life. I was having lunch with someone who was supposedly one of the most powerful people around: a ‘feudal lord’, someone who controlled both land and people. We were talking about problems in Pakistan and he said, with utter sincerity and helplessness, ‘Itne masle hain…samajh nahin aata ke kahan se shuru karein (There are so many problems..[I] don’t understand where to begin).
At the time we were studying in business school in Karachi together,and I was growing increasingly engaged in issues like poverty and inequity. My friend summed up the seemingly hopeless state of affairs neatly, and he wasn’t alone. But there were also thousands upon thousands of people and hundreds of organizations actively trying to make a difference, and it was troubling that they didn’t seem to be having an impact.
Around the same time, another friend told me about an easy way to get involved in development efforts: Association for the Development of Pakistan (ADP). This little-known, unconventional nonprofit funded small-scale development projects in Pakistan, working with a mix of volunteers and staff to conduct rigorous due diligence before providing funding. It was a small, committed team of people with impressive backgrounds who were working with organizations that were simply not on the radar. I was interested and joined as a volunteer…and that’s when I really got impressed.
ADP does far more than standard projects like water pumps, biogas plants and schools. It has been able to support some really interesting projects, such as a solar-powered water pump in Tharparkar and a school system for refugees in informal settlements. Each of these are proven interventions, following months of work ensuring a long-term, measurable impact and aimed at empowering local practitioners. ADP isn’t your stereotypical well-meaning outsider – every project comes from the community it reaches, and is led by a local nonprofit working with that community. I’m helping great grassroots organizations flourish across the country, and it’s taken years of thoughtful engagement to realize just how valuable and necessary that is. We can’t meaningfully address poverty if only four or five organizations get all the funding.
That has much to do with connections, of course. Philanthropists rely on relationships like everyone else, and so donations are made based on personal recommendations, instead of an objective analysis of the need. ADP is challenging this by asking donors to make decisions based on research and metrics through its ‘smart giving’ paradigm. This is a big shift, but as history has shown and every development professional knows, good intentions are not enough – rigor enables a greater impact.
To apply that rigor, however, transparency is needed. Historically, nonprofits in Pakistan have not usually shared meaningful information about their operations or projects. As a donor, you aren’t always told where your money is going, or what staff are actually doing on a regular basis. ADP has always been open about their work, seeing data as a way to help donors make informed decisions. I’ve recruited many volunteers and donors over the years simply by being able to find and share project details and budgets. It seems like a no-brainer to use data for better philanthropy today, but it was rare 10 years ago, when ADP first pioneered the model.
What is truly amazing about ADP is that everything is done by a large network of dedicated volunteers, which is a worthy achievement in its own right. For far too many Pakistanis, problems are merely something to talk about over dinner, and the only way to get involved (especially for expatriates like me) is to donate or fundraise. ADP has allowed me get closely involved with projects on the ground and really understand the development process.
In 2012 I experienced this first-hand when evaluating a biogas project in rural Punjab. I had to learn about the geography of Soon Valley, understand the energy needs of the community and decide if building a biogas plant was the most cost effective and sustainable way of meeting those needs. This evaluation took three months with team members from Pakistan, the UAE, China and Canada. It was an experience that I could not have gotten anywhere else, and more importantly, I wasn’t alone. Hundreds of ADP volunteers have been doing the same over the last ten years,building a global network that I am proud to be a part of.
Getting involved in development or social change of any kind is often frustrating. At the government and international NGO levels, where institutions are strong enough for scale, it is often a story of waste and ineffectiveness. At the grassroots, where real change and passion live, it can be a dispiriting slog, battling against the odds for little impact. ADP has remained incredibly exciting to me for five years because it bridges those worlds and does so with compassion,humility,and a good no-bullshit meter.
What would Pakistan be like with a network of smart nonprofits that learn from each other on a regular basis? What would it be like if everyone was part of a passionate team, learning about real challenges and opportunities every week?
Do you see why I cannot see a more fulfilling way to spend my free time?