A Discussion with Jennifer Lentfer, Creator of how-matters.org

With: Jennifer Lentfer Berkley Center Profile

July 11, 2014

Background: International development work is full of ethical challenges and different kinds of organizations tend to approach these in rather different ways. Jennifer Lentfer brings a remarkably diverse experience, with large aid agencies, a small family foundation, an international humanitarian body, and a renowned international advocacy and campaigning organization, plus personal experience as a blogger. In this discussion with Katherine Marshall and Nava Friedman, she reflects on her path and what she has learned along the way. She highlights the tension between a policy and advocacy approach and the satisfactions of working directly with communities and small groups. She also reflects on how faith can be a factor in motivating individuals who are committed to fighting poverty. She discusses the tensions in the appeal of orphanages and of “voluntourism,” with a lens that focuses on how to move Americans along the journey from charity to a more rights-based approach to development. She reflects on the pitfalls of communicating about poverty in other parts of the world, and on some new approaches, such as satire, that are helping people gain more realistic and ethical understandings of the challenges of development work.

Can you describe your unusual career journey?

It has indeed been a journey! I am from rural Nebraska, where I grew up on a pig farm. I went to Nebraska Wesleyan University where my professor had done her Ph.D. on the education system in Zimbabwe. She hosted a class called the introduction to development in 1996 that took us to Africa University, outside of Mutare, Zimbabwe for a month. We volunteered by day and did faux-strategic planning by night. It was a great experience because it linked the structural issues to what we were seeing in people’s lives.

When I came home, I had the chance to tell Rotary Clubs and church groups about our trip to Africa. At the talks, I spoke about volunteering at an orphanage and afterwards old ladies would hand me $50 bill, saying “Can you get it to those kids?” This showed me how generous people are, plus their wish to connect and help. Suddenly my best friend from college and I had a couple of thousand dollars and had to ask what we should do with it. We were allowed to use the 501(c)3 status of our Methodist university to send money. So after college we went back, and put in toilets and a garden, which allowed the orphanage to be food self-sufficient during the lean times that were to come in Zimbabwe. It was a formative experience.

I came back to the U.S. and moved to Detroit. I tried to work in the private sector, in the recycling industry, thinking that I should be making some kind of difference in my work. I saw the glass ceiling for women immediately and thought, “eh, maybe not for me.” So I went to University of Pittsburgh for a master's of development and did an internship at UNICEF Namibia. I started on my monitoring and evaluation track then, because I was always asking questions about “What works?” They were very near to my heart: Why are we doing this, and is it actually making a difference? I always tell people it was easier to move to rural Zimbabwe than Detroit because of my upbringing. Rural life made sense to me in a way that urban life had yet to.

I was recruited into the fellows program at Catholic Relief Services from the University of Pittsburgh and to my surprise and delight, and worry, I was sent back to Zimbabwe. This was 2002, the height of political violence, farm seizures, and hyper-inflation. Talk about learning quickly! I spent almost three years there working on HIV programs. That was also when Zimbabwe was receiving its first food aid ever and this involved a loss of pride, because Zimbabwe was formerly the region’s breadbasket.

Further, hyperinflation caused budgets to be managed very poorly. Suddenly CRS needed to let go of 40 staff. Expatriates were the most expensive and needed to go. I had arrived in Zimbabwe with a wonderful degree in my pocket, but my colleagues also had their master’s degrees in international development from the University of Zimbabwe, yet I was paid way more. That inequality in the international aid system was immediately in my face and it challenged my own value-add as an aid worker pretty quickly.

Forced to find a new job, I moved to Malawi, where I was the monitoring and evaluation technical advisor for a large USAID project, as well as the whole country program. Again, I learned a great deal. Malawi at the time was the world’s eleventh poorest country, after 50 years of development aid; I had to ask what was wrong with the aid system. Something was obviously not working. I was part of a seven international NGO consortium, with several million dollars, and all kinds of projects. It felt overly bureaucratic, overly technical, overly complicated, and poorly connected to people’s lives. New aid workers are often shocked by the time you spend on proposals and reports versus interacting with people, and I was part of that phenomenon.

Then a small family foundation from California (Firelight), that I had known and been a reference for, contacted me, saying that they needed a monitoring and evaluation advisor and consultant. As my frustration built, I later accepted a position with them and moved to Silicon Valley in California. The founders decided they were going to fund children affected by AIDS, and after much research what that meant for them was funding local organizations and grassroots groups who worked directly with children and their families. With grants at $15,000 or less at the time, Firelight could give money to the group of grandmothers who met under the tree to help kids in their community. It was a breath of fresh air. The work was so connected, built on trusting relationships. For me, it cut through all the bureaucratic layers of traditional donor funding. Here we were giving money directly to people on the ground who would be doing the work, whether we were there or not. Wasn’t that the point?

What kind of work did you do for the foundation?

I focused on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and grant-making. I did not actually build any capacity myself, but facilitated organizational development through peer to peer learning.

We gave money away; we invested. In my experience, it was very different from running a project. The change in mentality was really welcome at that point in my career, so I stayed with them for almost five years.

And then the economic crisis hit here in the U.S. and foundations took a cut to their interest-earning endowments. I was let go. That was hard because I did some of my best work in global development there, and loved working with our grantees in Africa and with a great team. I felt we were getting money to where it could be useful.

Was it more challenging to do M&E in a place where you were giving money to small, grassroots organizations?

The independence of the foundation meant that we got to look at results without the heaviness of a large bureaucracy. When grants are smaller, the risk is lower and you can let things ride a bit. You aren’t looking for immediate infractions of rules. You are looking for any red flags that accumulate.

We examined mainly whether the grantees themselves had some measure of organizational development through the grant-making process. We were more interested in whether they were looking at the results and making adjustments to their approaches, rather than what the results were. How were they relating to their constituencies? How were they looking at their own impact? Were they doing the self-analysis and reflection that makes an organization resilient?

I really enjoyed it and it was a loss when I had to leave. But my time at Firelight shaped me on a deep level.

How did you move from here to communications, writing, and blogging?

I had always wanted to write. I wanted to take the two worlds I had now been in—aid and philanthropy—and draw some lessons. So with a severance package and a lot of time, writing was now possible! That is what gave birth to my blog, “How Matters,” which attempts to highlight the work of grassroots organizations and what is needed from development practitioners to enable their work to thrive. The premise is that in order to relate differently to grassroots leaders and their strengths and achievements, we have to look at our own actions and attitudes as development practitioners.

How long have you been doing the blog?

It started in 2010, so I have written it for four years. At its height I was blogging a couple of times a week. Now, with full-time work, I try to keep it alive. Students blog for me and I welcome guest posts.

But how-matters.org now has a life of its own beyond me. It’s become a hub for people who want to think differently how we relate to our partners. Lots of really great opportunities for me have come out of it.

Who is the main audience of your blog?

I write on how-matters.org for those in the development, philanthropy, and social enterprise space. In 2011 a group of aid bloggers did a survey. We found, not surprisingly, that our primary readers are largely younger people.

I’m a healthy cynic for development modus operandi, trends and fads, and some people don’t connect with what I write, and that’s okay. For example, as a reformed M&E person, I don’t think randomized controlled trials are the key to the future success of global development.

I hope that ultimately the blog is a place for people who want to explore how they relate to their work as development practitioners.

How has your writing and thinking shaped your career path within development?

When I came to D.C., I had not been in the aid world for five or so years, and I wanted to see how much things had changed. I worked initially with the American Red Cross for a year, which allowed me to see the humanitarian side of the work, which I had only had glimpses of before. I was doing M&E again (because that was my skill set), even though I had already moved to a creative, social media and writing space. It was my M&E team members who sent me a job posting from Oxfam as a writer in the Aid Effectiveness Team, telling me, “You have to do this.” I’ve been there ever since!

Tell us about your current teaching job at Georgetown University.

I am teaching for the master’s program in public relations and corporate communications at Georgetown’s Continuing Studies School. My students know communications and I know development, so it’s really a learning exchange. They’re offering the class again this fall, so I guess it was a hit!

I’ve found that more and more people are excited to talk about international development! Research is saying that dramatic images—like a fly-covered child—prompt a one-time gift from someone who has never thought about world hunger before. But it causes fatigue and is really antithetical to the mission of most of these organizations, so it’s an exciting and challenging task to reach out to the general public on what are very complex issues.

Each week in class we tackle a topic related to international development, from technology, failure, and transparency, to voice and representation, and the do-gooder journey. Everyone also brings a “product” each week from an NGO or aid agency; this can be an annual report, a blog post, an infographic. We then apply a set of criteria we have developed to determine if each piece is a good communications product. Does it portray development in its truest form? Does it respect the people it portrays? Does it avoid jargon? By the end of the semester we had 190 examples and out of this collection, I curated a new set of guidelines for the future of international development communications entitled, “The Development Element,” which we are currently sharing and promoting among development organizations.

The experience at Oxfam has really informed a lot of my teaching to the PR students and how I want them to relate to those whose stories we help tell. We are getting to a point where everyone can and should tell their own stories. We’re not always going to be storytellers anymore and that’s a good thing.

Beside being in D.C. and having access to many great speakers and opportunities, the university also now has the new Center for Social Impact and Innovation, so all kinds of things are happening that I can link to and bring into the class. I realized as I was looking at your website today that I haven’t really brought in a lot of faith-based elements into this discussion, but it is something we need to do.

What encounters have you had with the world of faith in your work? You have also had experiences with many social entrepreneurs. How have you seen links to faith among their ranks?

Once you scratch the surface, you see in people a lot of unexpressed faith-based orientations to their work. Entrepreneurs by definition are outliers, and many are guided by how they relate emotionally and spiritually to development. But social entrepreneurs have a lot of the same problems as aid workers. They’re not responsive if they’re not listening to what people on the ground actually need and want.

Regardless, I see faith exhibited by religious and non-religious social entrepreneurs and aid workers alike, embodied in their professional and personal approach to their work. As aid workers, we are constantly engaging in leaps of faith—to trust people, to work in what are often imprecise processes or outcomes, and to contribute to a “higher” purpose.

Through my blog, I find that people want to talk more about their personal journey or motivation for their entrepreneurship or work, even in institutional setups. They want to understand or probe these things because they often don’t have enough opportunities to share why and how they got to where they are in their day-to-day work.

What has your Oxfam experience been? Among the different kinds of organizations you have worked with, where does Oxfam fit?

Oxfam, to my mind, is the NGO workers’ NGO. It’s the place we in graduate school where we always aspired to work as we read their policy reports, which were so grounded in justice. And they are not shy about that, which really appeals to me. I’ve been very clear since I worked at Firelight that I personally feel a need to be reforming the aid system in order to being a part of it, which is how Oxfam relates to aid effectiveness. It has been a journey for me because policy advocacy work in D.C. feels very far at times from community development and the reality of people’s lives in poor countries. But when you can have wins at a policy level, it can be huge.

Oxfam’s Aid Effectiveness team focuses on two main issues. One is aid transparency and accountability; a bill is coming up that we are hoping will be marked up in September called the Poe-Rubio Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act. And second we focus on the local solutions agenda, which is the idea of getting more U.S. foreign assistance funds into the hands of local actors (a vast majority of it flows to U.S.-based contractors and NGOs, not to foreign governments or local civil society), and then making sure that mutual partnerships in aid actually work that way. Aid is still too top-down and donor-driven and this disrupts the obligations of governments to their citizens.

Ultimately I respect the way Oxfam America communicates about its work. As a member of the creative team, I’ve seen how Oxfam is very intentional about how we portray the people with whom we work. There is always a name and a place and a story and a relationship—never nameless or faceless. This helps to avoid the tension between fundraising and programs that most international NGOs face, which is freeing.

How do you deal with the tension between charity and rights?

I struggle with that myself. If you grew up as a white American, as I did, you start from a place of charity. I grew up with a lot of “othering” in my life and moving towards respecting rights is a journey. The question is how do we help people move faster on that journey?

Let’s just accept that do-gooders are going to start with some really crazy notions in their heads that those of us who have been doing development work for a long time do not want to perpetuate. So how do we ask them the right set of questions? How do they have the experience that helps them move quicker than I did? That’s my question. My fellow aid bloggers tend to rail against voluntourism, but like other kinds of aid, it’s not regulated! It can be done well and it can be done really poorly.

Instead I tend to say, “What are the types of questions we need to be asking to help do-gooders connect to the structural issues—why poverty occurs, and what is their own role?” We can help make sure they’re asking these types of questions.

Today there are many crowd funding mechanisms that allow people to give money directly to projects on the ground. But moving money is not quite as sexy as feeding children on mission trips, is it? That’s the dilemma.

How could we measure the impact of mission trips better: both scale and impact? It is so decentralized.

An advocacy initiative that the Firelight Foundation worked on was called From Faith to Action. It provides resources for mission trip folks who want to do something for children. It shows them how investing in local organizations and local groups can help keep kids in their families, which should be the goal, no matter where that child is growing up.

I think Americans are particularly guilty of looking to simple solutions and to saviors, perhaps because of the youthfulness of our nation. But if do-gooders are open in their experience, then something can happen—that "aha" moment where you see it is complex, and it can never be simple again. The core problem is when we don’t value people who are poor as full and equal people. Then the attitude can creep in, “If I screw it up, who cares?”

A Tumblr account called “Humanitarians of Tinder” started collecting pictures of people on mission trips who were using their experiences to attract people on the “dating” website. Actually one of my students wrote about this semester—do people think that you are more datable if you can be perceived as a good person through photos of yourself with supposed needy children in a poor country? An ego thing is happening with the volunteers. But there is ego involved with all kinds efforts in aid and development, even with very experienced and respected individuals. We have to recognize ourselves in it.

But people need to ask themselves if they would ever go and try to rescue a child in need in their own country, city, neighborhood? Are they willing to knock on their neighbor’s door when you hear the kid screaming in fear every night? Somehow when engaging in international development issues, it’s as if there’s this otherness that allows people to see themselves in a mystified or romanticized idea of “helping” that enables them develop their own self-worth that in the process diminishes those they are helping. That’s dangerous. Even the phrase you always hear Americans use, “over there,” indicates how they see people and places that are not related to their own life.

So are there any new ways of communicating about development that better demonstrate to people what it’s all about?

We have a new set of fun, innovative ways to talk about development.

There’s a new mockumentary out called “The Samaritans,” put out by a Kenyan production company. I watched both episodes that they have been able to produce—brilliant. They can do in a half-hour satire what I’ve been doing for four years on a blog. It is sparking very interesting conversations and shining a light on the hypocrisies within the aid industry.

Oxfam had a partnership recently with “Stand Up Planet,” which was a documentary that follows a comic from the U.S. who went to India and South Africa to meet with standup comedians who are starting up there. His premise is, if comedy comes from adversity, shouldn’t impoverished nations have lots to laugh about? It was a light, yet authentic treatment of very serious issues, and was accessible in ways and to people that normally would not pay attention.

The Norwegians are supporting similar communications strategies now. As an example, in the video “Radi-aid,” Africans are thinking, “How do they survive?” with regards to the winters in Northern Europe, so they raise awareness and money to send radiators to Norway because it’s so cold. Mama Hope is an organization solely focused on sharing communications in their “Stop the Pity” campaign to challenge the portrayal of Africa and Africans perpetuated in the popular media and by aid organizations.

Those are just four interesting examples of the way international development communications are shifting. Hopefully, when someone takes a trip and becomes interested in global development, they will search on the internet and find one of these things and rethink their approach. There’s more opportunity for exposure to all aspects of development these days.

How do you as a communicator see the challenge of aid and a desire to help?

The typical NGO narrative goes like this: “So and so is in need. We help them. They aren’t poor anymore.” That’s the arc of most aid stories you ever read. Communicators themselves are frustrated with that. In my class at Georgetown, I spend a lot of time deconstructing this simplified narrative, and then building it back up. International development communications have to be rooted in community initiative, local leadership, responsiveness of government to its citizens, the services and aspects of well-being that make a good life in a holistic sense. Very little of that has anything to do with us as do-gooders or aid organizations, and so our role needs to be portrayed as secondary, even if you’re raising money. And that is challenging for people.

I recently became a member of a group called Feedback Labs. They’re experimenting with how to do, obtain, and utilize feedback mechanisms so that “beneficiaries” of aid can actually shape and influence how programs are designed and managed. My interest in working with them is how to socialize this, especially with donors in the U.S., so that donors to international NGOs are demanding that move from being a “nice to have” to a “must.”

I feel that millennials, for all of their supposed self-absorption, also value what’s authentic. They see through façade very quickly. I don’t think NGOs can keep telling simple stories and get supporters out of younger people. The boomers are the last loyal givers and they will soon move on. Now NGOs need to raise money in completely different ways and I don’t think many are ready for that transition. There may be some lean years ahead.

What other changes do you see on the horizon of the development sector?

As the world flattens, we need to be thinking much more strategically about how to get more resources to more people. There is a growing number of small NGOs and foundations that specialize in offering direct funding to grassroots leaders and small, often “informal” movements and there is much for the development sector overall to learn from them in terms of attitude and practice. How are we reaching the genuine, grounded, motivated people that are organizing their communities for change, and then how do you sort them from the ones who are not so sincere? Crowdfunders like GlobalGiving, Kiva, and GiveDirectly are getting a lot of attention lately. It will be interesting to see where this goes and how the large, “traditional” NGOs react. The practice of grassroots grant-making is something that everyone will be able to do in the future.

One of the ideas I wrote about last year was this: Why don’t you give every aid worker in a country office—from the cleaner to the country representative—a fund of $1,000 and tell them to find a person or an idea or a group that has never had funding before, and give. See what happens. This would be a small investment compared to the massive flows that come into any country. Having the experience of doing something new and innovative is often lost in the bureaucracy of aid work. It might help reignite that fire for why they got involved in development in the first place. More importantly, it might give them a new orientation to risk. There is such risk aversion that it really makes innovation impossible a lot of the time.

I think in $5,000 allotments, not $100,000 allotments because I’ve seen that $5,000 go much further when it gets into the hands of an effective community leaders. It’s time to experiment. Let’s just try something new for a change.

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