Networks at Work
The IAF knows the power of its grantee partners. For almost 50 years we have provided small grants to more than 5,000 of the most engaged, creative and dedicated organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since its founding, the IAF has sought to respect the agency of these organizations, giving them the space and flexibility to move at their own pace, incorporate new ideas and respond to the needs of their communities. It is no surprise, then, that quietly, but deliberately, these organizations have started to work together to solve problems. They draw on each other’s strengths, learn from each other’s failures and join forces to take on new challenges. This blog series, Networks at Work, attempts to illustrate how these networks are forming and by doing so, taking the impact of their work to the next level. The IAF knows the power of one grantee partner…imagine thousands.
How can genuine grassroots development nurture organic networks?
Organic networks are friendships, alliances, and partnerships that develop over time among different types of organizations working to further their objectives. In the case of IAF grantee partners from Guatemala, these contacts often flourish as a result of what the IAF does not do, as opposed to what it does. That’s because such bottom-up networks depend not only on the initiative of the grantees involved but on the willingness of the IAF to trust its partners to find their way. That means stepping aside and encouraging grantee partners to meet on their own and at their own pace, and to talk about and act on what they feel is important, as opposed to what others might see as appropriate or timely. They know their challenges and their needs better than anyone.
To facilitate organic networks in Guatemala, the IAF has for the past several years sponsored meetings called “grantee exchanges” where grantee partners get together to meet, share experiences, network and learn from one another. The IAF works to make these safe spaces where partners can build a sense of trust and community. The participants own these meetings – the IAF does not define specific themes such as microcredit, sustainability, organic agriculture, or fundraising, and neither do we “screen” the conversations to make sure grantees are covering topics we consider important. Instead, we leave it up to them to decide what they want to talk about and how they want to talk about it. In addition to the grantee exchanges, the IAF now includes in its grants funding to enable partners to visit each other and learn from experiences in the field.
The results of these exchanges and visits have been promising. Grantee partners who didn’t even know one another are discovering fellow grantees working on similar projects, or connecting with organizations that might have certain technical skills or resources they are willing to share. In Guatemala, most of our 23 grantee partners now interact sufficiently to be considered an “organic network.” Sometimes they talk about IAF-project-related activities, sometimes not. For example, some partners have recently focused on coordinating their position on the lack of indigenous participation in the nation’s judicial system. This topic is out of the IAF’s purview, but the coordination required for such alliances inevitably spills over positively into IAF project activities as grantees interact and learn to work together to build their organizational capacity and define a broader agenda.
The past few years have seen any number of concrete examples of such partnerships. Sa Qa Chol Nimla K’aleb’aal (SANK), which is working to enable Q’eqchi’ communities to manage their natural resources according to their ancestral traditions, is now benefiting from legal expertise provided by Guatemala’s Association of Mayan Lawyers and Notaries (AANMG). During a site visit in the heart of Guatemala’s Q’eqchi’ territory, SANK’s Ernesto Tzi told me, “the help that we have received from AANMG has saved us years of work and has convinced us that our dreams are achievable.”
Three organizations that work with youth – Asociación para el Desarrollo Sostenible de la Juventud (ADESJU), Asociación Muj’bab’yo’l (MBYL), and the Asociación Seres (SERES) – have realized that they can improve their programs by incorporating best practices learned from one another. ADESJU’s Ismael Solis, a 24-year old outreach worker from Aguacatán, a municipality in Huehuetenango, said that young people in his organization have benefited immensely from MBYL’s civic engagement workshops.
“As young people, now we know what it means to be citizens,” he explained. I spoke with Ismael in Antigua at a grantee conference for youth from 10 organizations in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, one of the first of a series of such youth exchanges that the IAF has planned going forward across the region.
When did I realize that we had an organic network going in Guatemala? One “ah ha” moment came during the fifth grantee exchange when I realized that the grantee partners were catching up on discussions they had had over the past few months that I didn’t even know about. On another occasion, I stopped by unannounced to visit a grantee partner in Guatemala City and discovered them working with other grantee partners to help protect the rights of community leaders.
These experiences solidified my belief that by “letting go” and giving some space to our grantees, the IAF shows that we value their judgment, which in turn reinforces their confidence in us as a genuine partner interested in understanding their needs and struggles as they define them. It also highlighted the fact that our partners are often better positioned to help each other than we are—a key reason that networks play such an important role in supporting organizational and civil society development.
Organic networks require time and patience – they’re more about letting it happen than about making it happen, and that can take years. They also involve a certain leap of faith on the IAF’s part, because we can never be 100 percent certain that the results of these alliances will be exactly what we’d like to see happen at a given moment. That might be why some other funders sometimes define the topics that they want their grantees to discuss when they meet. When you think about it, though, moving away from that model aligns better with what grassroots development is all about. Funding cannot last forever, and we want and need our grantee partners to keep working together long after the IAF is out of the picture. So why not encourage them to start working together while we’re still here?