On the eve of her retirement after 17 years at the IAF, we asked Marcy Kelley to reflect on the lessons she has learned from her four decades of international grassroots development experience. Before joining the IAF, Marcy spent 26 years facilitating grassroots development with organizations including the Peace Corps. She became the IAF’s Managing Director for Programs after previously serving as an IAF Representative for Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama and as Deputy Vice President.
These are four lessons I’ve learned about facilitating successful and sustainable grassroots development:
1) Communities know best
International development efforts often begin with outside organizations identifying a problem, developing and implementing a solution, and then leaving. Development literature is filled with the failures of such efforts. Initiatives are only successful over time if communities truly own them, and communities are more likely to own initiatives they themselves design, invest in, and implement.
The concept that communities know the development challenges they face and are best positioned to design and implement solutions is central to the IAF’s philosophy. As an IAF representative, I was constantly humbled by the communities I visited.
For example, when I visited a group of Afro-descendent women in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the members had to meet me on the main road and accompany me into the community for my own safety. They had proposed building a hotel and restaurant to generate income for the community. I laughed, “Who’s going to stay in this hotel or eat in a restaurant here, if I need security to even visit you?”
Their answer was so clear: “Why, our families, of course! We have to leave this community to eat in a restaurant. What if we could keep the money in the community? What if, when our families came, they didn’t have to stay in a hotel outside?” Their logic made total sense and we funded them. And against all odds, they did manage to build their restaurant center in 2016. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to the end of the year, they prepared 100 meals a day in that kitchen for children who couldn’t access food.
Don’t let your expertise get in the way of hearing what communities are proposing—they know best.
Keep an open mind and don’t let your expertise get in the way of hearing what communities are proposing—they know best.
2) Representation matters
Understand community dynamics prior to funding a grant proposal. Successful and sustainable initiatives are those that are truly owned by the community, so it is critical to learn who belongs to the community, who has a voice, who benefits, and how they will manage the proposed grants.
For example, I was once in Oaxaca, Mexico, prescreening a group interested in opening a small ecotourism destination. Not seeing any women in their formal presentation, I inquired. They shared that the women were at home doing their domestic chores. When we asked to speak with some of the women, the group was reluctant and accused us of “pushing our feminist ideas on them.” Their closed-minded reaction to the question was a red flag and ultimately we didn’t fund the organization. Similarly, if when pre-screening grants we learned that the majority of the population is indigenous or Afro-descendent, but these members were excluded from the grant, that would be a red flag.
But incomplete representation doesn’t always mean we wouldn’t fund an organization. When organizations recognize these gaps in representation and are eager to change, we work with them on strategies to increase participation or leadership within their organization. This brings me to my next key lesson.
3) Organizational strengthening is critical
Working in grassroots development often means working with small or newly-formed organizations that still have some growing pains ahead of them. But, as co-investors in community-led initiatives, it’s not our place to swoop in and solve those challenges for them. By asking a series of “provocative questions,” we can push grantees beyond what they’ve thought through and probe holes in their proposal.
For example, one organic agriculture organization in Costa Rica struggled because its board was too hands-on. When their leadership structure began to undermine the initiative, we offered them board training but ultimately had to pause our funding. Our poor local contractor was just dying, wanting to intervene, but I would say, “It’s not up to us. We can go in and get them to fix it, but that doesn’t mean it’s really fixed, because we were telling them to do it.” It took the grantee two years to get a new board and make the changes they needed to start functioning well, at which point we resumed funding and the initiative went on to great success.
The IAF’s patient and adaptive programming gives grassroots organizations the flexibility they need as they shift, try new ideas, and grow.
The IAF’s patient and adaptive programming gives small and grassroots organizations like this the flexibility they need as they shift, try new ideas, and grow. That doesn’t mean the agency doesn’t hold organizations to a high standard—it does—but it invests the time and human touch needed to help organizations meet those standards. Allowing grassroots groups to find their own way prepares them to weather future challenges, and we’re always rooting for them.
4) Connections are key
Grassroots organizations that need to learn something don’t need to learn it directly from us. The IAF connects grassroots organizations with others who have passed through similar challenges. It’s the only foundation I know that networks grantees by country or by theme into cohort groups.
For example, we brought experienced grantee partners from Ecuador to speak with a potential grantee partner and legislators in Costa Rica about developing policies to promote socially-focused economic practices. The exchange helped the Costa Rican group refine its approach and present a strong proposal that we ultimately funded. And today, Costa Rica has laws that are similar to Ecuador’s.
Magic also happens when we bring together grantee partners from the same country. Our orientation brought together fishermen from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and a community foundation. Within an hour, they had developed a business deal to sell lionfish from the fishers to local restaurants. You can’t imagine what grantees are going to come up with—all you have to do is put them in the same room.
In our work, as in all of life, these connections matter. I’m grateful for the many connections I’ve been able to make during my years with the IAF and everything they’ve taught me along the way.
Thank you for your inspirational leadership for the IAF and best wishes for the next steps in your journey, Marcy!