The Beautiful Curse: Who Owns Impact?

Donors bring an investment mindset to development. That needs to change

June 2024
June 2024
June 14, 2024
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When I was 17, I volunteered to be an interpreter on a mission trip in a rural town in Haiti called Dessalines. On the way into the town, the American missionaries in the car noticed and admired a beautiful arrangement of colorful flowers and candles outside a house. 

Naturally, as a Haitian, I knew to avert my eyes. One must not look directly at a wanga, a voodoo curse.

We arrived in the community and pulled up to the mission house, where our host took us to the rooftop to see the progress the town had made with their help. She pointed to a school, an orphanage, and a church – at which point she proudly shared how the town’s population had converted to Methodism, renouncing voodoo practice.

I looked on in confusion, remembering the beautiful curse, and the tell-tale signs that a voodoo priest was living in the center of town. Contrary to popular belief, voodoo is a spiritual practice that supports social structure, food systems, even medicine and wellbeing. The missionaries didn’t even seem to appreciate the role in the social structure that the priest plays.

This was when I first began to understand how little those who come to “help” seek to understand those they came to help.

If funders on a human level can mistake a curse for a scene of beauty, it’s no surprise that on a systems level they can mistake “impact” for transformative change. After all, as long as everything looks like they think it should, they’ve succeeded.

Funding is not investing, donors are not owners

Where does this lack of understanding come from?

Let’s call it like it is: philanthropy works too much like the financial sector after which it was modeled. Donors behave like investors and demand outputs and outcomes that can be measured and tracked to reveal impact. After all, impact metrics are just KPIs with a dash of feelings.

But impact according to whom? 

In emulating investors, who own shares of a company, donors end up with a misguided sense of how much they “own” the work they fund. Inevitably, this creates nonsensical power dynamics. We have to “produce” impact! Community-driven solutions get adapted to fit administrative procedures so that, piece by piece, missions and solutions are reshaped until they fit neatly into donors’ policies, metrics, and budgets.

A few years ago, I led a small business incubator in Haiti as the executive director and sole employee. The mission was to foster new mindsets for small- to medium-sized businesses that considered business as a social good. A way to not only generate an income, but to be role models in communities, and integrating the formal system of the economy such as banking, credit, and taxes. 

We got young entrepreneurs face time with investors and suppliers who they would otherwise never have access to. These young people were influencing their peers to consider better futures for themselves than a country like Haiti normally offers. 

In an attempt to fundraise for my program, and inevitably my salary, I met an American donor who took my annual budget, divided it by the number of program participants, and concluded that my “cost of impact” was too high. Translation, my cost of production was too high. 

A Dash of Reality

When the norm of development and philanthropy is to demand a return on investment, then those who pay for it will always be the ones to define the problem, own the solution, and design the impact.

Donors, a dash of reality: NGOs, non-profits, and all manner of community organizations will do whatever work reflects a funder’s mission if it gets us the funds we need to stay operational. 

We’ll season our application with your favorite buzzwords, budget it and plate it to your liking, then serve it to you on a silver platter. If you like what you see, staff get their salaries. The lights stay on. But our true priorities, the ones you claim to share, will sit on the back burner. 

When donors feel compelled to dictate what constitutes impact and how much it should cost, they distort organizational priorities and missions. Baseline assumptions about administrative overhead, program expense thresholds, and other, simple metrics make this inevitable. 

Within this system, people straining to change the world are relegated to a program expense whilst fundraising for their own salaries.

Out with Control, In with Trust

Changing this dynamic is not rocket science. It’s actually so much worse!

It requires centuries-old models of Western, colonialistic power dynamics to humble themselves to the people and causes they have not historically been very nice to. It requires trust that communities are capable of defining and naming their needs, as well as shaping the outcomes they desire. 

That shift of power is possible, but the people at the top need to recognize and embrace their inexperience with transformative change and their distance from the issues they seek to address. It is humbling, but it is incredibly powerful. Struggling communities around the world are consistently underestimated but I assure you, they know how to repair themselves. 

Basically, pay up, and trust them to show you what they can do.

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