The delicate task of supporting organisations

By Simon Mériaux, Manager, Organisational Development

The MAVA Foundation and the PeaceNexus Foundation, which helps key stakeholders consolidate peace, both provide their partners with organisational support. In order to do this, both foundations use “helpers”, independent experts who support the beneficiary organisations in their peacebuilding processes. Based on this methodological convergence, the two foundations organised a knowledge-sharing workshop in November 2017 on the Island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal, in order to bring together experts supporting NGOs in West Africa. This workshop, hosted by the Gorée Institute, brought together around a dozen experts from Senegal, Togo, Burkina Faso and Niger. The discussions covered the issues specific to civil society in West Africa before going on to focus on the participants’ support practices.

The outcome of this workshop was a collective report (in French) highlighting the main lessons learned from this meeting.  In particular, key lessons emerged from the discussions on the different roles that helpers have to play when supporting organisations. These lessons are summarised below.

The role (or position) adopted by the helper is a crucial issue:  helpers often have the mandate to play a predetermined role (often decided on by a donor), which does not necessarily correspond to the role expected by the organisation, or even the one the helper would prefer to take on! From discussions based on the typology of the helper’s nine roles, developed by Douglas P. Champion, David H. Kiel and Jean A. McLendon in 1990 (coach, mentor, partner, facilitator, teacher/trainer, modeller, reflective observer, technical advisor and hands-on expert), it appears that:

  • Whilst helpers take on the role of facilitator, coach or mentor by default, they are essentially expected to be technical experts by the organisations. In view of this marked difference in expectations, it is up to the helpers to explain their role clearly and “set limits“.
  • Efficient processes are those in which the helper’s role can evolve, intentionally and in conjunction with the supported organisation, in line with requirements. For example, the helper can start off by playing the role of a reflective observer (diagnostic phase) then vary between acting as facilitator, coach and trainer, before ending up adopting a true partnership-based approach.

The triangular relationship between the organisation, the helper and the donor appears to be a key issue. The terms of reference initially published rarely correspond to the real needs and often reflect a divergence between the supported organisation’s expectations and those of the representative. In these circumstances, regular meetings to redefine the terms of reference between the all the parties may be a solution.

This triangular relationship confronts the helpers with sensitive issues linked to accountability, particularly with regard to the sharing of information between the different parties. Although they are often hired directly by the representative, the helpers consider that they “belong” above all to the organisations they are supporting in a process of change. Therefore, although an extensive exchange of information with the representative can clear up certain misunderstandings, it may also give rise to a feeling of surveillance (or even spying) and affect the organisation’s ability to build a relationship of trust with its helper and take its own decisions.  The helper can then play a “buffer role” by helping the organisations to articulate their positions vis-à-vis their partners, a role sometimes facilitated by the existence of tripartite agreements. At the MAVA Foundation, whenever possible, we prefer the organisation to recruit and contract “its” helper directly. This ensures a real relationship of trust between the organisation and “its helper”… which is essential if they are to have a successful relationship. Please contact me if you are interested in these issues!

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