Chronic Funding Shortages and Their Effects

By far the most commonly mentioned problem in response to our question about their NGO’s major weaknesses (see chapter 6) was lack of funds—cited by a striking three-quarters of the organizations. Moreover, many of the other weaknesses mentioned by our interviewees could be traced back, at least in part, to lack of financial resources, and some interviewees made this connection explicit. Twenty-nine percent of the NGOs cited lack of adequate material resources, such as supplies or equipment, as a weakness, while 20 percent mentioned shortages of permanent staff. A third of the NGOs mentioned their staff’s lack of knowledge or expertise. Finally, 12 percent mentioned staff turnover, which may be linked to both low pay and periods between grants when there is no funding at all.

Reports about funding shortages differed strongly among the three types of organizations. Only one of the five international environmental NGO interviewees mentioned lack of adequate funds as a weakness, but almost three-quarters of Type I Cameroonian organizations and 90 percent of Type II NGOs did so. None of the international NGOs cited lack of material resources or lack of staff as a problem, but 17 percent of Type I organizations and 43 percent of Type II organizations mentioned lack of material resources, while 11 and 33 percent, respectively, reported lack of staff. Clearly then, the differences in the sources and amount of funds available have significant deleterious effects on Type II Cameroonian organizations.

More evidence of the severity of the NGOs’ funding problems appeared when we asked interviewees who told us that their organization had been “not very successful” or “completely unsuccessful” in meeting at least one of their goals about the reasons for these failures (see chapter 6). Among the 60 percent of organizations that evaluated at least one of their goals this way, 43 percent mentioned lack of funds as a reason for failure to reach at least one of their goals, while 29 percent cited lack of material resources, such as equipment, vehicles, and facilities. When we asked direct follow-up questions about whether lack of funds had been a factor in failing to meet a goal, an additional 10 percent said that it had been, bringing the total to 53 percent. Lack of funding was mentioned somewhat more often by Type II NGOs, but there was little difference for lack of equipment and facilities.

Our field observations and comments made by the interviewees drive home the impact of lack of funds on Type II Cameroonian organizations. The size and features of NGO offices reflect Cameroon’s status as a developing country, but the offices of most Type II NGOs were clearly at the low end. Many were in areas far removed from centers of economic and political activity, and some were little more than shacks. A few had no office space at all. Small work areas shared by several employees were the rule, and outmoded or nonfunctional computers were frequently in evidence. Copies sometimes had to be made at a nearby copy shop, and some NGOs relied on Internet cafes for email. The offices of Type I NGOs were typically larger, with private offices for managers and professional staff, functional computers and copy machines, and—in a few cases— even air conditioning. International NGOs enjoyed even more elaborate facilities. One was headquartered in a modern office building in the diplomatic quarter of the capital, while another occupied a large walled and gated compound nearby.

Interviewees from Type II organizations frequently commented on how lack of funds hindered their work. The president of one organization pointed out ruefully that his group had only one functioning computer that had to be shared among several staff members, while the leader of another complained that sometimes the staff could not even afford taxi or phone charges and had to dig into their own pockets for travel to field sites. An interviewee from an organization that sought to help communities in a remote area establish community-managed forests complained that they had been unable to build a satellite field office in the area where they did their fieldwork and that they badly needed a tough, reliable vehicle to end dependence on an old one plagued by breakdowns. An NGO involved in garbage collection and recycling in a small city was using recycled oil barrels as collection bins, had only handcarts to transport them, and relied on work space supplied by municipal government. Still another interviewee noted that his budget was limited to small-scale funding for individual short-term projects with limited impact, which made it hard to get the community involved. Several interviewees also told us stories of having to radically cut their staff and accept reduced or no pay themselves when funding for particular grants was exhausted, as they had no reserves or sources of continuing funds.

Difficulties with obtaining funds also occasioned bitter, envious comments from some interviewees. Several complained, in particular, about lack of financial support from government, sometimes mentioning other countries where they believed governments provided substantial financial support to environmental NGOs. One noted bitterly that the Cameroonian government spends billions, but his NGO was unable to get a cent. Beliefs that environmental NGOs in other countries are uniformly well funded by their governments are considerably exaggerated, but they do indicate the level of frustration experienced by the NGOs. Other interviewees, especially leaders of Type II organizations, complained that they were unable to compete with better funded international or Cameroonian NGOs for grants and contracts.

Data about staff size and composition (see chapter 6) indicate that these complaints are anything but exaggerated. The average number of full-time employees in Type I and Type II organizations was 11.9 and 2.5, respectively. Fifty-three percent of Cameroonian Type I organizations listed a financial expert and 29 percent a technical expert among their five most important employees, compared to 33 and 10 percent, respectively, for Type II NGOs.

These results suggest a vicious cycle, also observed with development and environmental NGOs elsewhere in Africa (Roberts, 2000; Michael, 2004; Bebbington, Hicky, and Mitlin, 2008; Holmen, 2010; Beer, 2012). NGOs that succeed in obtaining significant grants and contracts can afford the expert staff resources they need to maintain the elaborate financial records that donor organizations require, write more sophisticated proposals, produce more professional reports, and have enough expertise at their disposal to carry out major projects. NGOs with smaller staff and less expertise often felt “locked out” of this process. They complained that they had to try to get by with small amounts of funding from Cameroonian sources and small, episodic grants or contracts from international funding organizations or other environmental NGOs and were unable to get their foot in the door by obtaining a first significant grant from an international source.

The leader of one NGO, for example, noted that his NGO would like to raise funds online, but lacked the necessary software and skills. Moreover, none of his NGO’s staff have training or experience in writing grant proposals, which has made proposal writing difficult, especially in view of the major time investments required to research funding options. Another interviewee narrated the history of a sister NGO that received a grant of almost $50,000 but was unable to provide an adequate accounting for the funds. As a result, the project was terminated, and the NGO was shutting down. He attributed this problem and similar ones in other environmental NGOs in his city to “sloppy procedures.” It is not clear whether fraud was involved. In another particularly poignant example, the leader of a small NGO, headquartered in a dilapidated one-room shack without functioning office equipment, described his NGO’s unsuccessful efforts to obtain outside funding. Despite a five-year record of successful small-scale projects, including conducting public education, running a tree nursery and planting trees, sponsoring a school environmental education project, and promoting the use of fuel-efficient stoves, the organization’s lack of clerical and financial staff, combined with the requirements of funding organizations, kept it from writing successful proposals. It was therefore forced to make do with an all-volunteer staff and very limited funds from voluntary membership dues and occasional small donations. At times, leaders and staff labored on unpaid for months because they could not find a paid job elsewhere, remaining until they either found another position or gave up.

Some of our interviewees expressed considerable resentment about outcomes like these. Several NGO leaders noted that they had trouble competing with better funded NGOs for the best staff. One NGO leader heatedly expressed his frustration that his organization could not afford the kind of expert staff that the WWF had to write grant proposals and cultivate contacts with potential funders. He also noted that the funds his NGO had been able to obtain contained no money for overhead, so they had trouble maintaining facilities and hiring support staff. Several other interviewees noted that their most qualified staff were frequently lured away by more lucrative salaries available from international environmental NGOs or international aid agencies.

The international NGOs themselves were well aware of this problem. The leader of one spoke frankly and at length about this. According to him, it is not surprising that international funders seek out his organization because of its experience and expertise. His NGO, he said, has tried to help Cameroonian NGOs by providing subcontracts or collaborating with some of the stronger ones. Other NGOs, he said, including some who complain most loudly, really consist only of an entrepreneurial individual without the basic competencies needed to work successfully with his organization.

A few interviewees from Type II NGOs told us that that their organization had made a conscious policy decision to avoid the “grant writing game,” raise what funds they could from Cameroonian sources, and concentrate on projects and goals, such as environmental education or tree planting, that do not require large budgets or deep technical expertise. The leader of an NGO that specialized in public education and lobbying, for example, said that their work did not require major financial resources and that he wished to avoid excessive dependence on donor organizations. Another interviewee from a small NGO focused on public education and small-scale nature protection projects said that his NGO had decided to focus on what could be accomplished with locally available resources instead of spending time pursuing international funding that they were unlikely to obtain. For some NGOs, occupying this niche might well be a more productive strategy than continuing to write numerous proposals to foreign funders that are unlikely to succeed, but unless a way is found to raise more funds from Cameroonian sources—or mobilize much more volunteer labor—there are limits on what they can accomplish.

 
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