ECOLOGY of aid Emily Troutman Aid Works

The Ecology of Aid: Lots of Organizations Play Complicated Roles

While working on my recent story about the village of Takara in Vanuatu, I discovered many organizations had been to visit Takara, but it wasn’t always clear why. Following disasters aid groups often overlap, fill gaps and sometimes work invisibly in communities.

Even though the organizations start out with the same goal — “to help” — the way they achieve that goal can vary widely. It’s like how different trees, animals and insects interact. Sometimes an ecological zone works in perfect harmony. But other times, there may be overpopulation of certain groups, the appearance of diseases or the disappearance of key species.

Sometimes diversity can help communities in need. Here are some of my thoughts, with a focus on the groups who visited Takara. I also noted Haiti and U.S. organizations that I know my readers will be familiar with. I am interested to hear your opinions, please share them in the comments.

Church aid

Examples: Latter Day Saints, World Vision, Salvation Army, community religious groups. Annual budgets for these groups vary, but for the large groups, they may be billions. A significant proportion of these budgets comes from donations received at church fundraisers. Salvation Army annual revenue is $4.2 billion. World Vision last year was $795 million.

Pros: Knowledge about the community, history in the community, agile, access to funds, independence from government oversight, speed in mobilization, lower reporting requirements, given in the spirit of generosity

Cons: Beneficiaries often must be members/believers, bureaucracy to get more funds, staff/community leaders are usually local and busy with family needs, lack of transparency, limited funding to pay local staff, geographic reach limited to member communities, blind spots (sexuality issues, etc.)

Renegade aid

Examples: GoFundMe, ProMedical (Vanuatu), private citizens. Annual budgets may be anywhere from $0 to $200,000. This is sometimes a stage on the way to other structures, for example, JPHRO, the Sean Penn Haiti organization, started with a bag of cash he brought to the country in a backpack.

Pros: Fast, agile, passionate, flexible about mission, quick access to targeted funds, staff will work in rugged conditions, less government oversight than big organizations, less institutional expenses (media, fundraising, legal support, etc.)

Cons: Not eligible for some funding because of non-status as 501c3 (institutional grants, foundations, some donors), vulnerable to narrow pet projects, unpredictable skill sets among staff, no background checks on staff, staff often not protected by insurance, not scalable (i.e. impossible to expand, or not easily replicated on a bigger scale), unpredictable transparency

Small, independent groups

Examples: Live and Learn (Vanuatu), SOIL (Haiti), animal shelters. Annual budgets may be anywhere from $200,000 to $5 million range.

Pros: Clearly directed missions, less expensive, smaller bureaucratic structure, faster than big aid, knowledge of community often higher, less reporting requirements, passionate staff, often have local name-brand recognition and social capital

Cons: Dependent on contracts with other organizations, vulnerable to mismanagement, lack of global name-brand recognition, difficulty fundraising, too small for big projects, bad at networking, high overhead costs in relation to size of organization, may not be knowledgeable of broader issues

Big (and Medium) Aid

Examples: United Way, International Federation of the Red Cross, Oxfam. Annual revenues may start at a few million dollars and climb to the billions. In the U.S., Goodwill and YMCA are familiar brands. Goodwill annual revenue was $5.5 billion last year. YMCA was more than $6 billion.

Pros: Lots of money, professionalized staff, name-brand recognition, diverse capabilities, global reach, capable of implementing big visions, legal protections for staff, fair pay, politically savvy, singular vision, often grounded in history

Cons: Big overhead, lots of bureaucracy, inefficiencies due to duplication of effort, loss of mission-oriented perspective, vulnerable to staff disillusionment, hard to ensure quality control, risk-averse, slow, danger of corruption and theft, overly political or protective of brand

Governmental or Intergovernmental / Global Organizations

Examples: United Nations organizations including World Food Program, UNICEF, OCHA. National groups like USAID, Australian Aid and the UK’s DFID.

Pros: Potential for lots of money, staff expertise, insider knowledge, access to people and places, potential to engage in big change, huge scale, clear mandates, speed to the ground, legacy relationships, purchasing power

Cons: Highly-political, often slow, too many cooks in the kitchen, spending subject to complex oversight, big bureaucracies, visions can change mid-stream, tough to control for fraud, lack of local knowledge, staff turnover


Ecology of Aid Emily Troutman Aid Works

For more information on the biggest groups listed here, you can check out Forbes’ list of the biggest 50 charities in the U.S.

What do you think? What would you add to this list? Have you worked for multiple types of organizations? Which did you like best? Are you a donor? Who do you give to and why? Please comment below.

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  1. Evert Bopp

    While I don’t agree with all the specifications in this article it’s interesting and worthwhile to see someone at least making an attempt at outlining the differences.

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