Decoding Dynamics: Operational Insights Into Localising The International Nonprofit Sector

Localisation has been a key theme in recent discourse within the international nonprofit sector. As just one proof point, FCDO’s latest White Paper on International Development underscores the importance of localisation efforts based on “mutual respect” and “equitable partnerships”. 

Seamless recently ran a thought-provoking clinic in London to explore the essential aspects of successful localisation efforts, uncovering key themes that underscore the complexity and nuance of this journey, drawing on observation that if an egg is broken by outside force, life ends but if broken by inside force, life begins; and concluding that great things always begin from inside!

Key themes from this session included:

  1. Localisation Is A Process: It’s About The Voyage, Not Just The Destination

One resounding theme echoed throughout our conversation: localisation is a journey, not a mere destination. It entails a continuous process of change and adaptation. Anchoring this theme through defined long-term objectives will help an organisation make shorter-term changes and demonstrate progress.  This mindset shift acknowledges that success is built incrementally, and each step forward is key to achieving the goals of localisation.  Since stakeholders sometimes lose sight of progress made in the longer term time, it may be helpful to celebrate/acknowledge progress made from time to time, thereby further empowering the change process.

  1. Diversity: Embracing the Rich Tapestry of Thought Takes Time

Diversity is more than just a buzzword; it’s a cornerstone of effective decision-making. Our discussion highlighted the importance of allowing time for the organic embrace of diverse thoughts and perspectives, especially those of internal staff, communities and participants on the ground. Recognising that incorporating a multitude of inputs may pose challenges to decision-making (as it’s likely to expand the number of ideas, challenges etc to consider.), we explored the idea that this complexity is a strength, not a hindrance, fostering innovation and resilience.

  1. The Importance of Mutual Respect and Local Collaboration: Grounded in Community

Localisation thrives on a foundation of mutual respect and collaboration. Our discourse emphasised the significance of identifying needs at the local level, leveraging indigenous knowledge, systems, and people. Strengthening local systems and elevating local voices emerged as crucial strategies, all while being mindful of when external support or intervention is necessary for sustainable success.

  1. Unintended Consequences: Navigating the Pitfalls of External Influence

A cautionary note sounded through our discussion concerning the unintended consequences of external influences, especially when thinking of governance structures. Specifically, we explored the potential pitfalls of donors imposing structures that might inadvertently work against the very essence of localisation and the barriers it may create in delivering impact.  An open dialogue around these challenges is imperative for steering clear of unintended setbacks.

  1. Metrics: Beyond ‘Burn Rate’ to Real Change on the Ground

Our conversation challenged the conventional reliance on ‘burn rate’ measures. Instead, we delved into the importance of recalibrating metrics to emphasise the time required for delivering tangible change on the ground. This shift in focus aims to foster a more nuanced understanding of progress and success, acknowledging the complexities inherent in impactful localisation efforts.

  1. Local Funding: Key to Community Participation

The pivotal role of indigenous/local funding was highlighted. Having “skin in the game” was considered key to fostering community participation and ownership, making the point that financial investment from within the community enhances the sustainability and success of localisation initiatives.  This can of course be complemented by donor funding from outside the country, where regulation and programmatic alignment permits.

  1. Operating Structures: No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

We digested a critical realisation during our dialogue: a one-size-fits-all operational blueprint won’t suffice for effective localisation. Tailoring approaches to the unique needs of both the market and the organisation is vital. Considering this, Seamless introduced its framework designed to guide entities in identifying a suitable model that aligns with their particular context and objectives.  For example, when will a local legal entity be preferable to a local partnership?

With speakers and participants from the Global North and Global South, the key themes that emerged reflected almost complete alignment – an encouraging outcome!  The rubber hits the road on the operational thinking and actions that boards and their teams have to own, whether that is fundraising, programmatic activity, management structures and associated hiring plans, governance approaches, appropriate operating models in different countries, how to adapt risk and impact assessment processes to reflect local realities … and many more things besides, including how to break out of the egg from within of course (see earlier reference!)!

The views collated in this blog are the result of a clinic Seamless ran on 17th January 2024 in Association with British Expertise International, Clean Air Fund and FHI 360.  Thank you to the speakers and diverse group of organisations that joined us.

This blog was co-authored by Ed Dixon, Executive Director, UK & Europe, Seamless and Ananya Bhadauria, Client Development lead for Seamless’ nonprofit clients.  Seamless supports the international nonprofit community to navigate the operational complexity of working internationally.