Non-Profit on the Side

Before joining IPA in 2006, I spent a year abroad in Botswana where I volunteered with several non-profit AIDS organizations. These were all small-scale NGOs serving core needs – palliative care, psychosocial support and rehabilitation services for people living with AIDS, supplemental orphan care, and testing and counseling services.  Most of these organizations were operating on shoe-string budgets, relied on volunteer or poorly compensated staff, and were constantly having to shut down operations for lack of funds. More than 10 years into the AIDS crisis in one of the hardest hit nations in the world, these core programs were only breaking the surface of gaping needs.

Together with a group of friends and colleagues from Botswana, Canada and the US, I started to brainstorm about ways of boosting core funding for these organizations. Together we developed the concept for Setso Project, an online tool to leverage individual donations to small, community-led organizations in Botswana. Despite the simplicity of the concept for Setso Project, since its founding I have been struggling with the very complex questions of feasibility, utility, efficiency and accountability. It’s difficult for me to admit how much time has passed without resolution to these issues, but the reality is that three years later I still don’t know the answer to these fundamental questions.  I’ve gone through numerous iterations of giving up, renewing faith, accepting half measures and giving up again. Nevertheless, with each round, I seem to gain a clearer understanding of our aims and the barriers that stand in the way.

Is what we’re aiming to do useful?  The short answer is we don’t know and we may never know. As someone who has worked for 6 plus years in the field of economics research, most recently for Innovations for Poverty Action, I have come to understand that when feasible, a randomized controlled trial is the best way to measure impact.  Nevertheless, there is room for involvement in the development challenge on all levels.  Researchers, like those at IPA, need inputs/ideas/practices to test, just as we, as practitioners, need proven solutions to implement. To the extent that answers are available on what works in development, we will incorporate them (see IPA, FAI and JPAL websites to learn about what we know works).  And where answers don’t exist, we will use our intuition as well as guidance from potential beneficiaries to make our best guess at useful interventions.  In brief, I don’t think intuition alone is a good idea for million or billion dollar development budgets, but I think that it's the best we've got for small organizations filling in large gaps with limited funding while we wait for more definitive answers from research designed to provide important lessons for a broader scaling up.   

Rebecca is Financial Education Coordinator at IPA and Founder of SetsoProject.org