'We promise you to reconsider': NGO-donor relations in Egypt
By Rania M. Fahmy*
The executive of the non-profit organisation that serves children at risk, especially those living on the streets, looked worried as she sat in the waiting area. She took a final look at the elegant file that contained a proposal for extending the funding offered to the organisation’s several programmes.
Although she hates numbers, tables and graphs, her job taught her to love what she hates, out of necessity. Each department in the organisation prepared colourful tables showing the organisation’s work, graphs showing the progress made over the organisation’s few years in operation, the partnerships it managed to establish with other stakeholders working in the same field, and its total budget that comprises expenses reflecting what is needed for the organisation be able to continue to provide services and work toward achieving its vision: “When children, especially children in street situations, are saved from all dangers they are subjected to, we promise you to close our doors and look for another job/life because we will no longer be needed. But till that day comes, we will commit ourselves to providing them with an opportunity for a new, dignified life.”
The fate of the children and of the employees – who consider the organisation a second home – was to be determined in that meeting. Behind that door, in that room, sat the arbitral tribunal known in the field of non-profit work as “the donors”. The organisation knows that the donors’ decision on the extension of funding will depend on whether they are convinced with all the expenses put forward by the organisation’s team. The team worked on this proposal tirelessly for months.
She looked at her watch. Five minutes remained for the meeting to start. As she reviewed the figures in the budget yet another time, she spotted the small amount allocated to marketing, advertising and fundraising events, which the organisation had raised from 3% to 6% of the total budget. She remembered bitterly all the times in which donors rejected raising the money allocated to this item, and she asked herself, for the hundredth time, why the for-profit sector is allowed to spend huge sums of money on marketing and advertising while donors refuse to fund the same item in non-profit organisations. “Why do they always fail to see that if non-profit organisations are allowed to invest money in this area, this will eventually multiply their resources, serve the cause and hence serve increased numbers of children?”
She heard her organisation’s name being called. “This way, please,” said the secretary. “Please, God, do not let them object to this item, and if they object, give us a good argument to get across to them and convince them of its necessity,” she whispered to her organisation’s financial officer, who accompanied her to the meeting room.
He tried to reassure her but she dragged her feet to the door and opened it. Hellos and smiles and small talk. Then... those in the room opened a digital copy of the file, which had already been emailed to them. What followed was a detailed discussion of every item in the budget.
“All the changes we are asking you to do are minimal. But this item, we do not agree to it at all. How can the expenditure on the organisation’s activities take up 24% and the that on employees’ salaries take 48%, i.e., around half of the total expenses, although it is known internationally that expenses on salaries in any organisation should not take up more than 18% of the organisation’s total expenses?” said a representative of the donors.
“This means that you want to spend the funding on staff instead of spending it on children and this is totally unacceptable,” he added.
This is exactly what she had been dreading.
She sat up and looked at her colleague, the financial officer, expecting him to start explaining the figure from an accounting perspective, which he did. “These are not the salaries of administrative staff members like the manager, accountant, security officer and procurement officer, whose salaries constitute only 18% of the general [salaries] figure," he said. "The remainder is actually salaries related to children’s activities, and without these staff members we will not be able to provide the service. If we reduce the salaries of these staff members, our service will not be of the quality acclaimed by local and international entities.”
Before going on with her desperate attempts to convince the donors, the organisation’s executive thought of the service providers. Not only did she hope to have their salaries raised, but she also wanted to offer them incentives and allowances because of their very difficult working conditions and the highly complicated nature of the duties they are assigned. No words could reflect the effort and perseverance it takes to alleviate the pain and trauma of victimised children – not to mention the psychological pressure that the workers themselves are subjected to due to the nature of their work.
“Imagine if you suddenly became a mother or father of seven or eight children, all with severe problems. Imagine having to care for a four-year-old child with a speech problem because he had not found someone to talk to?” she said in an effort to convince the donors’ representatives. "This mother is the caregiver at one of our shelters’ dorms, where there is one caregiver in every room serving six to eight children. She is assisted by the unit heads and the head of the shelter.”
She also asked them to put themselves in the shoes of the team of psychiatrists tasked to provide psychosocial support, or the organisation’s children and their families who suffer from mental diseases; all the specialists are required to do their job toward the children and care for them perfectly, together with undertaking all their other, administrative tasks such as writing reports about each child’s mental, physical and educational development.
She went on to invite the donors to imagine looking for a girl child, her mother and her grandmother on a daily basis given that the three of them live on the street in one of Cairo’s fancy neighbourhoods, because they cannot find another place to live.
She also asked them to envisage the boy who ran away from his family because of the physical, sexual and verbal abuse that he was subjected to when he lived with them.
She told them about how the organisation’s social workers, who are part of the outreach team, divide their time between providing their services to children on streets and working at the organisation’s reception centres. These social workers confront armed thugs on the streets and try to fix the behavioural problems that the children who come to the reception centres have. Sometimes, children come hiding arms or weapons, and sometimes they come while under the influence of drugs. The social workers are occassionally summoned by the police to be questioned over the crimes committed by children living on the streets or by one of their family members. The workers are constantly seeking to protect children from the exploitation and dominance of “the street’s leaders”, and they risk being arrested and accused of enticing children to practice beggary, especially that those officers do not possess identification cards issued by the ministry of social solidarity, which the non-profit organisation is affiliated to.
The organisation’s executive knew that she had to hurry up because the “donors” were starting to show signs of impatience.
“Imagine having to redirect the children’s energy from being destructive into being innovative. You would race against time to be able to educate them through the organisation’s various educational programmes, and to have them attend arts and vocational workshops so as to discover their hidden talents. This is what the trainers and workshop instructors do.”
“And imagine having to clean and cook on a daily basis for more than 150 children and the caregivers living with them.”
Then she confidently asked the meeting’s attendees: “Despite all of this, you consider the compensation of these service providers as overhead cost that have to be on par with international figures? And even if it were so, why are the overheads of non-profit organisations considered a liability and not an asset? Allocating money to service provides and other items, like establishing a fundraising unit, is actually an engine of development and a guarantee of quality service.”
The question is whether one can hope for changing the mindset that dictates that donors’ funds should go to the direct beneficiaries only. And the more important question is why non-profit employees are expected to settle for salaries much lower than what they would have earned had they been working for a private company only because they are working for a non-profit organisation that depends primarily on donations. How do donors expect employees to continue to be motivated without being offered incentives although their tasks increase year after year?
Instead of asking non-profit organisations about the percentage of overhead cost on their budgets, donors should rather look at these organisations’ performance indicators and internal systems, and at whether they are capable of producing the planned results efficiently. Donors should ask about the employees’ dreams and ambitions in resolving their society’s extremely complex problems.
The organisation’s executive finished presenting her case, and the meeting was adjourned. She and the financial officer were asked to wait outside the meeting room. After a very slow 15-minute wait, the answer came: “We promise you to reconsider.”
*Rania Fahmy is a defender of children's rights.
This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk newspaper on December 22, 2015. It was translated into English by Aswat Masriya.