One of the most vexing dilemmas we face in the Global Development and Population Program has to do with how, when, and why we work directly with small non-governmental organizations that operate only in one country—let’s call them “in-country NGOs.” Given the small size of our team relative to our grantmaking budget, and the fact that we operate from a home base in Menlo Park, California, more often we make grants to larger organizations that work in multiple countries, generally from a base in the U.S. or Europe.  

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples, drawn from the portfolio of grantees with whom I’ve had the chance to visit during a trip to Dakar this week. You’ll quickly see why it’s not a simple choice.

As one example: We’ve provided support over several years to Associates in Research and Education for Development, or ARED, a small, well-respected Senegalese organization that seeks to advance multilingual education. The team is dynamic and committed, working out of modest offices on a shoestring budget. With our funding, ARED has developed a model of mother-tongue instruction for early primary school; the model was rigorously evaluated and, in large measure as a result of the positive evaluation findings, the Government of Senegal is now interested in extending the model to 1,000 government schools.

Working with ARED, rewarding as it has been, has meant a lot of effort on both sides of the relationship, with each of us trying hard to understand and work with foreign systems and timelines. Keeping things on track has required tremendous patience—again, on both sides—and several interventions by consultants providing technical support just to deal with the foundation-grantee relationship, let alone the content of what ARED is trying to do.

Here’s a contrasting example: In Senegal, we’ve also provided support to several civil society organizations advocating for better reproductive health policies and accelerated progress in family planning. In that part of the portfolio, we’ve supported Senegal-focused projects of international NGOs like IntraHealth International.

The international NGOs know how to write proposals, track money in familiar ways, and prepare high quality reports that are easy to understand. Using resources they get from big grants and contracts with official donors like USAID, they have offices and are staffed well, making it relatively easy to get new work up and going when we provide a grant. They speak our language, in every sense of the phrase.

The benefits of working with international NGOs are quite real. Though there’s no getting around the fact that these are external agents who are able to work in the country only because they are funded to do so, they find and work with excellent Senegalese experts, and develop partnerships with in-country NGOs. They understand the context well, and can be influential through their contacts both within the country and internationally. Moreover, they can amplify the impact of work we fund by sharing what they learn from one country to others.

Figuring out when to work with international NGOs and when to work with in-country NGOs is the stuff of much discussion and debate, not just for us but also for many other funders. All of us within the Global Development and Population Program see the value and the promise of working with those who have the deepest, sustained commitment to social change and are drawn to work with promising in-country NGOs. But our relatively small team also knows that the level of effort required to make those relationships succeed is something we could not manage across our whole portfolio of 300 or so grantees. And even if we could, we might be missing the benefits of scale and scope.

So, what we will continue to ponder is the two-part question: Under what circumstances does it truly makes sense to work in-country, given our own constraints? And when we work with international NGOs, how can make sure they’re able to do more than serve as “middlemen”? I promise no magic solutions, but I do promise to write about this again when we have some answers.