Just give me waffle and CVs, misery
So much fluff I’m going blind and I’m braindead virtually
Sustainability is hard enough to see
Take me away from this BD world and improve delivery!
If you didn’t get that reference, don’t worry – but you’re here now, so you might as well read on. We’re here to talk about Business Development [dum, dum dum]. The Voldemort of the aid world, while the association of poverty alleviation objectives with capitalist terminology is a little uncomfortable, in NGOs, contractors, and impact funds alike you will find hoards of people whose only job is to get more funding. And why not? If you believe what you do as an organisation represents a good use of philanthropic funds then why shouldn’t you want to get more funding to do more of it?
But it’s the political economy and mechanism of business development (BD) that is problematic and specifically the disconnect between those who are trying to get the money and those who have to deliver on the promises they’ve made in doing so. For the majority of BD teams that is their only job – indeed many contractors and NGOs hire specific bid writers for particular project proposals. Once the money is won, the prospect of delivering it is considered almost entirely separately. Establishing a culture of innovation and critical reflection is absolutely vital to effective implementation, particularly of MSD programmes. And while some may talk a good game, the majority are effectively trading off having won (not having successfully delivered) other programmes with completely separate teams and organisational structures. This is not to ignore the separate skillsets of management and writing, just to say that those who are telling people what they’re going to do should be a lot closer to those that are going to do it.
The content of most proposals is 80% sales waffle. “Organisational capabilities” are largely an illusion. The ‘technical support’ as full time staff cited as a resource for the majority contractors and NGOs do, in fact, spend the majority of their time working on proposals too. In many cases all you’re selecting a partner for is the right to put an advert on DEVEX or Linkedin to solicit a programme team.
The flip side of this, of course, is to imagine the alternative – an implementer with a range of high quality staff, experienced in all the relevant sectors and contexts sitting around on the off chance they receive funding for just the right programme so they can all mobilise and deliver it. Doesn’t sound very realistic does it? So working within a more pragmatic reality, what can we do?
As always, the first step to improvement is recognising you have a problem and there’s no doubt that we do. But there are other practical steps you can take in both soliciting and writing proposals which would give a more genuine reflection of capacity for delivery. The following represent both what proposals should offer and what funders should look for in deciding whether to fund a proposal.
1. An acknowledgement of weaknesses. The sales bluster will commonly state that an organisation can do everything. They can’t. And acknowledging that demonstrates that they know what’s necessary for effective delivery and, crucially, that have a strategy to address it. Specialisation and the representation of different perspectives is important. For example, an organisation might claim to be all about MSD when 90% of what the organisation delivers is direct farmer training – what are the chances that internal incentives and management structures are equally geared to facilitate both?
As an extra word of caution – be careful of the [insert organisation here] [insert thematic area here] approach. Knowledge and innovation is hard fought and critically challenged through literature and practice. MSD for example, isn’t owned by anyone but emerged as a consensus from the development community. Reappropriation of concepts in such a way cheapens them, removes comparability and shared learning for the sake commercial gain.
2. Focus on processes. Given the MSD relies on timely and context specific identification of constraints and opportunities, it goes without saying that you should be suspicious of any predefined solutions in a proposal – if they already have a good idea of what’s wrong and how to fix it, why aren’t they doing it already? If they’re already working on a programme which does this, why do we need a new one? And if they’re not, then they’re making huge assumptions about systems and actors and importing solutions from elsewhere. Instead, then proposals should be absolutely clear about the ‘known unknowns’; the processes they will follow to identify, recruit, and mobilise teams, conduct diagnosis, establish partnerships, manage finances and be accountable for delivery. Those things are known and replicable with established best practices where adaptation for context can be demonstrated.
Often proposals will be asked to or will offer examples of their work with comparable criteria such as budget, geography or sectors. The first and perhaps most obvious tip here is to ask for evidence of success in implementation, rather than just the ability to win programmes. However, the interpretation of these references should serve to strengthen confidence in an organisation to operationalise these systems, rather than to replicate the activities. This is important because a successful programme in another context is likely to have been highly influenced by the programme team and that team won’t be working on this programme. So soliciting a wide variety of evidence of success is perhaps the best way to demonstrate the true organisational competence – operationalising well designed systems – rather than any specific technical competence.
3. People, people, people. Until the robots take over, people are the biggest determinant of success in any business or organisation. At the level of the market, institutions, path dependency and culture play a far bigger role but, for an MSD programme usually with 10-30 full time staff being recruited from scratch, it’s the quality of those few individuals who will drive the success of the programme. Given timelines and uncertainty, perhaps it’s difficult to name those people at an early stage. At minimum, then, proposals should be expected to demonstrate the skillsets, the recruitment and testing processes, and perhaps an example profile of those who will take positions. At later stages of the selection process, it should be expected that more individuals can be named and interviewed.