Sunday, November 04, 2012

The more things change...

Cuso International brought me to Honduras to do communications work for a Honduran non-profit organization, a job that is both strikingly similar and completely different to communications work in Victoria.
On the one hand, communications is ultimately about finding effective ways to talk to the people you need to talk to, whether you’re in Honduras, Canada, East Timor or Uzbekistan.  But in Canada that largely means focusing your efforts on those with money or influence, whereas in Honduras the whole game changes because the country doesn’t have a responsive government or much of a culture of philanthropy.
One thing that is identical, however, is proposal-writing. That might not be in the job description when you take a communications position, but trust me, you’ll end up doing it sooner or later if you’re working with non-profits. I’m well familiar with that soul-destroying process after seven years of working with Canadian non-profits, and now have enough proposals under my belt here in Honduras to report with confidence that it’s an equally miserable task here.
Non-profit organizations have to submit proposals constantly to try to sustain their funding. They’re essentially sales pitches shaped around some undertaking that a particular funder has in mind. At its essence the practice is like bidding for a building contract, except that non-profits are mostly working on less tangible things, like better societies.
 If you’re smart, you spend a lot of time reading what the funder says in the proposal call before you begin writing, so you can better match your pitch to the things they’re identifying as important.
They all have their areas of interests – youth, women, animals, disease reduction, a thousand themes. But there’s also a kind of flavour-of-the-month practice that’s very common. Whatever subject is globally “in” - human trafficking, literacy, protecting kids from gangs, crystal meth – tends to be a  theme across many different funders, at least until the next new thing comes along.
In Honduras, the big themes right now are around reducing the risks that communities face due to climate change, helping people to be better farmers and stewards of the environment, and developing more active, engaged citizens aware of their rights. My organization is working on all those fronts, as are many of the other non-profits here in the country dependent on international funding.
All noble pursuits, of course.  But none are short-term undertakings. Adapting to climate change in some cases in Honduras will mean convincing people who have farmed the land for centuries to look for new kinds of work. You can’t stop Honduras’s rather horrifying rate of deforestation until you do something about the almost five million people living in poverty who cut down trees because they need the wood to cook with and the space to grow corn. You can’t exercise your rights in a country where government just does what it wants.
Change takes time, yet the bulk of project funding is for a year or two. And while the current themes are important areas to focus on, many other equally important needs are neglected due to the big funders all shopping for the same kinds of projects.
You get tangled in all of that pretty quickly when you’re writing a proposal, in Honduras or anywhere. You know what the real needs are, but you face either having to find a way to squeeze them into the shape of the funding or give up on trying to address them. You know that a project will in fact take a generation to be fully realized, yet you’re writing like you’re going to make it happen in a year.
And the corker: You do all that work – and believe me, every proposal is a lot of work – with no certainty that anything will come of it. You twist yourself into knots trying to come up with something creative that the funder will like, you draw tables and create spreadsheets and fill in the squares of yet another week-by-week work plan, and more often than not you don’t get the money anyway. (Or worse, the funder collects all the submissions and then decides not to go through with the project.)
One particularly rude practice of a few international funders here in Honduras is to issue calls for proposals with a deadline that’s less than a week away.  What do they think, that a scratchy little Honduran non-profit has people just sitting around waiting for a proposal call to fill their day? No, they’re out busting their butts trying to achieve all those other unrealistic goals they had to promise in the last proposal.
Anyway.  Perhaps the whole thing’s just a bit fresh in my mind right now, having just gone through an intense period of proposal madness this very week that involved dreaming up a year’s worth of activities on a ridiculously tight deadline with the knowledge that in all likelihood, the project will do little to solve what ails Honduras . I guess I should just treat it as a valuable cultural learning experience: In any language, in any country, proposal-writing is a total drag.
And while any money is better than nothing to a non-profit, you just can’t solve a complicated country’s problems this way.

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