Long-term, respectful, learning partnerships – how Firelight works with communities to achieve impactful and sustainable change

In July 2018, Firelight Board Member and longtime donor Molly Efrusy (President, Efrusy Family Foundation) visited our community-based organization (CBO) grantee-partners in Malawi who are working on early childhood development center quality and on girls’ access to secondary education.  We are thrilled to have Molly share reflections from her visit:

Through my philanthropic work over the years, I have been concerned about two problems in particular that are rampant in the “aid” or “development” community: one, the significant unintended consequences resulting from the most well-meaning initiatives (e.g. foreign doctors who provide free medical services on short “mission trips” often make it difficult for qualified local physicians and hospitals to sustain medical care for patients) and two, the reversal of most gains that occur once direct aid disappears.

Over the years, I have come to realize that for philanthropists’ efforts to be truly positive and sustainable, it is most impactful when we get behind and guide initiatives adopted and embraced by local communities, rather than simply imposing our own solutions upon them.  At its core, Firelight’s mission has always been to support such community-based and community-driven solutions.

This July I visited Firelight’s CBO grantee-partners in Malawi. While there, I was able to meet some of Firelight’s partners in both early childhood development (ECD) and girls’ secondary education. I am pleased to be able to share some of my takeaways from the trip.

Firelight Board Member Molly Efrusy with Firelight staff and CBO grantee-partner leaders in Malawi

Firelight Board Member Molly Efrusy with Firelight staff and CBO grantee-partner leaders in Malawi

CBOs actively engage communities in producing change.

What particularly strikes me about Firelight’s support of its CBO grantee-partners is how CBOs actively engage their communities to enact sustainable change in tangible, creative ways. Many of the CBOs with which Firelight partners encourage and create avenues for community members to contribute resources – often non-monetary – in a way that reduces reliance on external support. For instance, community members in Malawi come together to donate construction materials such as bricks and paint to ECD centers and give their time every week to make porridge for the young students.

Classroom in a Malawian early childhood development center

Classroom in a Malawian early childhood development center

While non-monetary contributions are essential, CBOs also encourage families to contribute monetary resources to community pools such as economic savings groups and social funds. For some partners in Malawi, these social funds are expended to pay the secondary school fees of the most vulnerable girls in the community. When parents then see the value of educating their girls, more and more community members are encouraged to contribute to these social funds, solidifying a sustainable vehicle that ensures the education of vulnerable girls, with no outside intervention.  In my experience, this is in stark contrast to many other international organizations. While these organizations may impact thousands of girls by paying their school fees directly, without engaging communities in contributing to this change, the impact washes away as soon as funding disappears. Firelight knows that community members are inherently part of the fabric that allows CBOs to operate on a daily basis and to create lasting change for children.

What is even more promising is that community leaders are also deeply invested and involved in these initiatives. Because CBOs actively engage community leaders in their work, these leaders designate land or office space to CBOs, partner in their decision-making processes, and help prioritize community development projects. During my visit to one ECD center in Malawi, community leaders and village elders were even part of the annual graduation ceremony, presenting each and every child with a small gift and certificate of accomplishment. This was a touching symbol of how deeply the community – guided by committed leaders – values and views early childhood development and education for their children. When community members see that their leadership is invested in them, norms shift, and community values change.

Communities are seeing real changes for their children.

In talking to many CBO leaders, it was clear that they are seeing real changes for their children. They reported:

  • Increased number of girls from their community attending university after completing secondary education

  • Reduction in teenage pregnancies

  • Increased number of girls in vocations typically considered “men’s work” – such as solar panel installation – that allows them to earn a sustainable source of income previously unavailable to them

  • Increased demand for early childhood education, resulting in enrollment reaching its cap in many communities

  • Increased confidence of girls attending secondary schools

During one of my visits to a secondary school supported by secondary education partner Foundation for Community Livelihood and Development (FOCOLD), I met teachers, parents, school committee members, and four girls that had benefitted from FOCOLD’s programming. In front of this audience, these young women were able to confidently share their experiences and their plans for the future. Two of the girls had completed Form 4 (equivalent of 12th grade in the U.S.) and were planning to attend university, and one girl hoped to pursue a career as an accountant. It was clear how much agency these girls had in their own lives, and they had the respect of their communities, who supported and encouraged them each step of the way.

Firelight is a true partner to its CBO grantee-partners.

Firelight’s CBO grantee-partners feel that Firelight is a real partner to them. Instead of prescribing that CBOs run their programs in a certain way, Firelight guides and supports them, allowing them to grow and to find their way over time. When CBOs encounter “hiccups” in their programs, Firelight’s flexibility and open communication allow CBOs to be honest about these challenges and work together to find a way forward. For instance, CBOs in Malawi are currently challenged by high caregiver turnover within their ECD centers. Instead of hiding this problem from Firelight, CBOs have been encouraged to come up with pilot solutions to incentivize caregiver retention, which can then be supported by Firelight through funding and capacity building. Firelight also connects these CBOs to technical advisors and other CBO partners from whom they can learn new lessons and strategies to adopt into their own program models. These peer learning structures are powerful.

Every CBO I visited valued Firelight’s commitment to capacity building – both technical and organizational – and to peer networking. The training the Malawian secondary education partners received in human-centered design has not only allowed them to design interventions responsive to community needs in secondary education but also has encouraged them to use this same methodology in their other community development projects. At the same time, the partners have been trained in monitoring and evaluation to track child outcomes from these interventions, as well as in political advocacy. CBOs now serve on district and national technical committees and working groups where their voices were not previously heard.

What inspires me to support Firelight

When I, as both a longtime donor and Board Member, think about what most inspires me to give to Firelight, I think about the organization’s deep commitment to long-term, respectful, learning partnerships with its CBO grantee-partners. In my experience, many international NGOs conduct well-intentioned, single-year interventions, which often achieve positive outcomes in the short-term only. Firelight, instead, walks a journey with its partners, providing funding and mentorship at a pace that they are able to absorb and implement – understanding that this process takes many years.

I heard over and over again from CBOs that “this is how development should happen.” Community development is hard, and there is no “silver bullet solution” that can then be immediately scaled. But from Firelight’s work and investment in CBOs, I know that it is truly possible to make an impact, in a measurable way, that continues long after donors have moved on to other projects.