wordle 2How people speak about phenomena reflects how they view the world, how they think realities are shaped, and how (power)relations influence what happens.  Take a word like “respect”, or “no”?

To prevent problems like Cologne, in Belgium asylum seekers are taught “Belgian values” about sexuality and respect for women. Today we learned a judge ruled that a Belgian man who admits he raped a woman, penetrating her even though she had repeatedly said “no”, was guilty but not to punished because the “circumstances had made him lose control”. So much for “respect” and a clear interpretation of the word “no”.

Maybe words are not really my thing. I am doing some background reading on language and discourse (not my field considering my training as an economist) and I am reading this – not entirely new – publications on buzz- and fuzzwords in development edited by Andrea Cornwell and Deborah Eade. It includes a chapter in which a word count analysis is done of six British development policy documents between 1960 and 2006: the outcomes are fascinating: the word ‘gender’ first appears in the 1997 document sparking a rise in the frequency of use of the word ‘women’. In 2006 gender is hardly used but ‘women’ remain relevant, more than for example ‘rural’. The concept of ‘rights’ has a strong presence in 1997 document but is less prominent in years after. In the same chapter the authors (Naomi Alfini and Robert Chambers) reflect on keywords of the 2005 OECD Paris Declaration and identify words that are notably absent from that declaration. An eye opener as it clarifies that declaration (and aid effectiveness) is not about people, relationships, or agreements, but about performance, results and capacity to manage.  Am I surprised….

Anyway, I also learned this week that while changes in language may reflect a (shifting) paradigm, different language can also help you better communicate ideas without fundamentally changing the paradigm.

Gender, women’s rights and feminism are all words that people tend to have strong feelings about. When used to describe something, many men and women will respond that whatever is described has nothing to do with them. The words may even trigger negative reactions. So can you communicate about the ideas and experiences that generated the language of gender and gender relations, without using the words? Yes you can.

A Ugandan NGO CEDOVIP works on the prevention of violence against women, particularly partner violence found that their audiences did not respond to the language of “gender relations” and “women’s rights”. Raising Voices and CEDOVIP developed an approach based on the concept of power: fostering and drawing on the “power within” communities and activists, the program triggers critical reflection about what it means to have “power over” women and it supports the development of connections and collaboration, unleashing the “power with” to actually change behaviors and foster the “power to” make change.

The program is called SASA! An independent evaluation study found significant positive differences between communities in which SASA!  was implemented and similar communities were it had not (yet) been implemented: for example in the communities they had worked in over 75% of the men and women said partner violence was not acceptable, against a mere 25% in the control communities. And in this case ideas influence behaviors: the levels of violence against women were 52% lower in SASA! communities compared to communities in which SASA! had not been implemented. So while the ideas underpinning the SASA! are very similar to the thinking behind ‘gender relations’ and ‘women’s rights’, CEDOVI shows that changing the language can make good sense from a perspective of effective communication.



Timing denial

strandbeestTheo Jansen, artist and creator of Strandbeesten explained in a TV-documentary about his work that in his creative flow every problem that presents itself immediately comes with the dream to solve it.  I so admire optimists!

Seeing in a crisis the opportunity as the famous saying goes requires you – at least temporarily – ignore the pain of failure and problems, and be a dreamer. But what if the problems are existential? Existential as in exit.

“Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Tom StoppardRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Exits, transformations and radical cut-backs in not for profit organizations are profoundly painful processes for all those who are affected. Yet some degree of denial of the pain may allow you to see the opportunities. But productive denial requires good timing. In the world of funders and not-for-profits I also see a lot of denial of organisational pains that allows crucial problems to fester and lead to crises. So how do you time your denial well?

Over the next months I expect to be immersed in issues faced by not-for-profits from which funders exit.  None of the NGO’s involved has been part of a formally planned exit by a funder(s). Questions like: How long do you keep on trying? What did we miss, should we have seen this coming? What about the future of the paid staff and (unpaid) volunteers? Do we scale back? Liquidate?  Go dormant?

Funders of not-for profits have serious problems with exits, planned entrance in a country or field on the basis of an entrance and an exit strategy. I wrote about exits for funders in a GrantCraft publication.  Emulating venture capital practices, the venture philanthropist are very keen on preparing for exits and sustainability and EVPA also collected lessons learned and provided guidance to their members through and EVPA guide on planning and executing an exit.  Many funders circumvent the exit problem by suggesting from their side there is not real entrance: they provide funding on a project by project basis and do not really strategize about the field or sustainability of the continuity of the capacities and organizations that implement the projects they support.  It is an opportunistic approach, but unless a complete field collapses none of the crises that exits cause will affect them.

But awareness and commitment does not provide guarantees. What if NGO’s and their funders both underestimate or even deny the financial fragility of the causes and organizations they support. Problems of financial fragility are rarely a crisis that hits out of the blue. The problems tend to creep-in very slowly: how to manage growing budgets changes into making ends meet, into chronic deficits. After a bad year, if there is a financial reserves, extensive discussions about their use to stop-gap ensue. And a lot of effort and dedicated capacity will be invested in gettin fundraising back on track, but do you revisit your fundamental strategy?  Or do you delay that discussion until the next year. Will doubt vis a vis the fundamentals undermine the effort to get back on track?

Ironically, denial of structural problems can also be fed by unexpected large gifts that hide more strategic issues.  And another factor that allows for financial fragility to remain unaddressed is the urgency of the cause as it stimulates a focus on fixing things instead of managing with a long term perspective.

So how do you manage to balance optimism and realism? The guides for funders referred above encourage funders and charities to work together and face financial sustainability at every stage of their relationship. But equally important is  how the management and board members of NGO’s can support each other to face this issues at the right moment and see the opportunities, the new spaces opened by the exit doors.

New Year-looking back and looking ahead


Another year gone by. Last year I made little time for blogging. My standard excuse: too busy with my work for clients or with my volunteer work. That explanation suggests that one excludes the other, which may not be the case. The synthesis of working and sharing is called Working Out Loud (WOL). As defined by John Stepper WOL is “making your work visible in such a way that it might help others….. when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.”

It has been buzzing around WOL on internet for some time now, so I have some catching-up to do. The  basics I learned from this blog by Sahana Chattopadhyay and you will find some practical, critical thoughts on the subject by Nigel Young.

Particularly Young’s first point is relevant: “WOL is about working in a visible space not preparing and presenting in that space”.  Unfortunately not all the work I do for clients can be be done in a shared, let alone public space. So how do you manage that? Can you do part of your work out loud and be quiet about other parts?  Would that still be WOL? Anyway, I am going to try an find out this year how I can WOL and be discrete, protecting the interests of the organisations I support.

But even if I end up working really quietly in 2016,  I will steal ideas from the WOL-community. For example, I will follow in the footsteps of the “writer who draws” and makes “art with words and books with pictures”,  Austin Kleon  and be creative and Steal like an Artist (thank you Russell Kerkhoven)

Stealing, sharing and amplifying or endorsing: often my own experiences are not at all unique, and others formulate much more eloquently the issues I come across in my own work. A good example is a blog on non-profits by Vu LE I started followng in 2015. Check out this one for example on  lessons learned in 2015.  I particularly like the one about the danger of ignoring the elephant in the room:

An elephant in the room is most destructive when it is ignored. Every organization has an elephant. Or an 800-pound gorilla. Or whatever large animal is representative of a problem that everyone knows exists but no one wants to wrestle with. Deal with it head-on, because ignoring it usually makes it worse.

Next year I hope to become better at dealing with elephants large and small. Will keep you posted!

Women activist for peace – WILPF Centennial

“We women, in International Congress assembled, protest against the madness and the horror of war, involving as it does a reckless sacrifice of human life and the destruction of so much that humanity has laboured through centuries to build up.” That is how the declaration of the first conference of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1915 in The Hague.

The painful part is that their statement is still so relevant. But the resolutions are also inspiringly relevant and up to date. What to think of:  “This  International  Congress  of  Women  declares  it  to  be  essential,  both  nationally  and    internationally  to  put   into  practice  the  principle  that  women  should  share  all  civil    and  political  rights  and  responsibilities  on  the  same  terms  as  men.”  Over the last 15 years the UN Security Council has reaffirmed so many times that women have to be involved in peace negotiations but with less than 4% women at the negotiation tables they remain sidelined, see also the facts and figures on women and peace and security

Our foremothers saw private profits as an important hindrance to disarmament: “The  International  Congress  of  Women,  advocating  universal  disarmament  and   realizing  that  it  can  only  be  secured  by  international  agreement,  urges,  as  a  step  to   this  end,  that  all  countries  should,  by  such  an  international  agreement,  take  over  the   manufacture  of  arms  and  munitions  of  war  and  should  control  all  international   traffic  in  the  same.    It  sees  in  the  private  profits  accruing  from  the  great  armament   factories  a  powerful  hindrance  to  the  abolition  of  war.”

While (further) nationalization of arms production does not seem a viable nor sufficient solution to achieve progress in disarmament these days, it is clear that the political economy of the production of arms continues leads to ever growing volume of deadly weapons being traded. And the developed countries of the North (including Russia) are the top producers (and exporters) as evidenced in the data from SIPRI 

Tomorrow, one hundred years after Aletta Jacobs and her sisters met in The Hague, a new conference, the WILPF Centennial Conference will start. I am truly excited (and honored) to be part of it.

Going back a hundred years …..

IMAG2061This is the trunk of a tree that is over 200 years old. It can be found in a forest near Louvain, Belgium. I ran into it during a hike last week. It is not only massive and majestic but somehow I find it peaceful.

Enjoying the early spring sun, I realised that the tree must have sprouted around the time of the battle of  Waterloo (1815) and survived two world wars.  Indeed, it had a quite respectable age already a hundred years ago, in 1915 when in The Hague  a massive group of women met to strategise for peace and women’s rights.

The International Congress of Women, later Women’s International league of Peace and Freedom,  convened more than 1,200 delegates from 12 countries. These included Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the United States, countries at different sides of a war that was at that very same time soaking Belgian soil with the blood of teenage soldiers in the second battle of Ypres that claimed over 100.000 casualties in a few weeks.

This year, in the same week, 100 years later WILPF, the organisationfounded at that conference will meet again in The Hague.  While violent conflict (continues) to hold the world in its grip the members of WILPF will meet at a Centennial Congress.  After the Congress, at the Women’s Power to Stop War Conference, 27-29 April in The Hague, nearly thousand men and women will engage, exchange and talk about peace and freedom.  A brief on the conference website sets the tone: “The WILPF 2015 Conference is therefore all about truly establishing the principles of sustainable peacebuilding and exploring the root causes of conflict, as our foremothers did in 1915. This means approaching peacebuilding from a holistic perspective, taking human rights, disarmament, social and economic justice and the environment into account, while challenging the dominant militaristic narrative of ‘more guns = more security’, which only reinforces militarism, patriarchy, exclusion and inequality as the root causes of conflict.”

I am very excited – and honoured – to be part of the WILPF delegation to the congress and I look forward to participate in the conference.  We will of course celebrate the work and progress made over time. Our fore-mothers fought hard and successfully to secure democratic rights for women. But WILPF leaders already 100 years ago understood that peace needs more than voting and democracy: it needs justice, something that even in exemplary democracies we struggle for today.

In advocating for justice WILPF has always been very much about the power of facts and information. Two current WILPF programmes illustrate this very well: check out PeaceWomen on the role of women in conflict and peace, and  Reaching Critical Will on disarmament.  If you are more in general interested in what WILPF has been doing, consult the WILPF Anniversary Atlas

Going back a hundred years. So much effort, for such a long time. Indeed it needs a lot of inspiration to balance the frustration. Pessimism or even cynicism seems inescapable: consider the bombing currently going on in the Middle East this very day, did we really make much progress beyond Ypres?

But count on WILPF women to be tenacious. In 1915 the conference venue – The Netherlands – was neutral in the war, but you can imagine how the powers of 1915 felt about American women and British women meeting German women. Actually the boat with the American delegation – see picture – was held up a few days by the Royal Navy in the Channel.  Doing nothing is not an option while small successes can be a big source inspiration.Tenacity combines well with inspiration. After the congress and conference I hope to share some of the stories and inspiration!



So I have not been writing for some time, December was a crazy month and I spend the first weeks of January travelling.

Actually I went back to where I first got involved  with development issues: the Dominican Republic, more specifically El Pozo in the Maria Trinidad Sanchez province.

As a student over 30 years ago in 1983 with a colleague we did research in this village, looking into how women without access to land shaped their livelihoods in this rural, rice-growing area. We found that they had three basic strategies depending on their age and family composition: they would either marry someone with land or an income, work as a day-labourer in rice cultivation or earn their money washing clothes. The options – husbands, rice ears, or soap bubbles – translate into a Spanish alliteration: Esposos, Espigas o Espuma de Jabon, which made for a good title of our paper. We also found that women involved in rice cultivation had different preferences regarding for example rice varieties, reflecting their specific circumstances. The fact that gender was an issue in rice cultivation was somewhat of a revelation to the male technicians and scientists involved. But that was 1983. Fortunately nowadays gender issues are less easily overlooked in agriculture.

2015-01-13 elPozo1983 001

El Pozo / Los Pagones – 1983

El Pozo 2015

El Pozo – 2015


Later in 1987 I went back and lived in Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR, for two years. This was our first visit since the early nineties and it was great to get a glimpse of the Dominican Republic today.  In terms of infrastructure – roads, schools, clinics –  there has been a dramatic change. The merengue is blasting from every speaker as always, tourism is doing well, manufacturing less so. The political culture seems very similar to what we saw twenty years back: elected governments, freedom of press but still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the quality of political decision-making and (financial) transparency. Campaigns for the 2016 Presidential elections are in full swing 18 months ahead of the elections. And the relations with neighbouring Haiti are – as usual – tense at all imaginable levels.


But alas, holidays are over and it is time to go back to work. I started this year as Chair of Peace Brigades International – Netherlands. More about that in my next post.

Grants, returns and dividends in philanthropy

Are grants the most efficient means to achieve a foundation’s philanthropic mission?  And what is the best strategy when it comes to investing an endowment?  Last week at the European Foundation Centre some practitioners convened as part of a series of peer exchange events around social investment. Participants in the event reflected on the practicalities involved in changing practices in their organisations.

Already many foundations deliberately invest ‘green’, or screen their portfolio to eliminate investments in companies that abuse human rights, or consciously invest in assets that may give a much lower return but contribute towards achieving their foundations philanthropic mission, or all the above.

Also at the programming side practices are changing. However, when it comes to investing financial resources the main transaction type in private philanthropy continues to be the grant.  These days that would be usually a project grant with a duration between 12 month and 3 years, sometimes renewable.  On very rare occasions foundations still give core funding that is not tied to a specific project. The emphasis is on providing resources for salaries, fees, and expendable materials. Philanthropist rarely use funding modalities like loans, guarantees, or equity stakes. And even when private philanthropist invest in capital goods they usually do it through grants and gifts.  For example the first micro-credit schemes in the eighties and nineties of the last century were sponsored with public and private grants, only recently they enjoy the interest of impact investors.

A useful image depicts the range of options that you have between making a grant and investing in tradable assets that give the highest financial return.


From:  Making Your Money Work(harder)book, EFC (forthcoming)

Social investment – which, by the way, does not per definition has to be an investment in a social enterprise – would be anything in the green circles at the left of this image: from providing funding for capital goods (in support of operations) expecting no, or only partial pay-back, to investing with the expectation of a minimal financial return.

The arguments for using these alternative funding and investment tools may vary.  Some suggest that charities, NGO’s, social enterprises and civil society organisations have a need for – and can absorb – different kinds of funding. For example, sometimes they may need an advance as workingcapital which they can pay back later from raising funds, grants or other income. Or they may need capital to procure critical pieces of equipment or to invest in infrastructure, saving recurrent expenditures down the line.

Others would argue it is all about unleashing the innovative force of the market into the realm of the public good, and that the social enterprise model – supported through loans and equity – is the best, if not only sustainable way forward.  And yet others believe on a macro scale that financial returns – even minimal – on (social) investments have the potential to attract on a massive scale the private capital we need to solve today’s social problems.

Sometimes I think funders stick to grants as the only tool to promote social change only for the sake of simplicity or tradition. Giving a loan can be administratively and legally quite complicated if you are set-up as a private foundation.  And as a foundation do you want to own a stake in a social enterprise?  You have to know what you are doing. Which is why understanding the various tool can be helpful. Thus concluded the practitioners that met at EFC: by all means, in your programming do not shy away from using other funding tools, but if you are a beginner, keep it simple and small, and stick to your field of (thematic) expertise.  And maybe most of all: learn from your experience!

At the EFC event an interesting discussion evolved as to whether the partnerships between funders and recipients would be different if the transaction was not a grant, but a loan or an investment  in equity. Some suggested the relation between borrower and lender would be stronger, closer and/or more equal than between grantor and grantee.   In my view it is more complicated.  Closeness in a partnership comes from shared goals and ideals, and from shared realities, personal interaction and trust.  Talking about the limitations of grants as a funding tool, someone suggested that funders “use the grant to buy a project outcome”.  I think it is this ‘buyer-seller’ dimension of the relationship – as if it is a utilitarian transaction – that is problematic.  But is that inherent to the grantor-grantee relation? And how does a loan agreement makes the partners more equal?

Find out more about social investment on the site of Social Finance UK and – also drawing on the UK experience – check out this comprehensive study by ClearlySo.  The EU is also busy fostering social investment in Europe.  Additionally, the Center for Global Development has been investigating and promoting the idea of Development Impact Bonds. These novel financial arrangements could connect different partners in a different role in the context of development coöperation, thus generating a stable flow of income for the actors on the ground, security for government institutions that are accountable to taxpayers to get results, while private  – philanthropic – investors assume and share some of the inevitable risks involved. I will get back to that in another blog.