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The True “Beneficiary” Is The Organization That Listens

listen2Denise Raquel Dunning, Program Director of AGALI, contends that the social sector is missing out on knowledge and expertise that is patently available. We’re not listening to the voices of people served – not on the level of a recognizable and consistent competency. And that means we are falling short in our subsequent responsibility to convert that data into the information necessary for accountable programming and policy change. Digital storytelling for advocacy is one tool AGALI is using to change that.

We have failed the individuals and communities we seek to serve. Our current thinking and existing approaches in the social sector are inadequate. Overwhelmingly, foundations, non-profits, and governments attempt to solve other people’s problems – poverty, homelessness, hunger, disease, and barriers to information and services both in the US and around the world. Given all the data, program evaluations, and survey results at our fingertips, we think that we have the information we need to develop sustainable social sector solutions. We are wrong. While we may have a glut of information and even the best of intentions, our initiatives will continue to fall short until we recognize that our ‘beneficiaries’ are really the people who have the solutions that both they and we need.

Within even the hardest to reach communities, there are leaders who understand the needs of their families and communities. These community leaders are the best data source we have as we develop, implement, and evaluate programs in the social sector. There is no question that national surveys, field studies, and various forms of quantitative and qualitative data all have a role to play in the conceptualization, development, and implementation of social sector programs. Yet while these sources may be necessary, they are certainly not sufficient. All too often, we miss the most crucial data points, the ones that are directly in front of our faces – the knowledge, expertise, ideas, and experience of community-based leaders.

While project ‘beneficiaries’ may not have all the solutions to the world’s problems – like how to develop new vaccines or improve national GDP – their knowledge of their own cultural and political realities must be paramount in the creation of sustainable social sector programs. Without integrating the expertise of the people and communities we seek to serve, social sector interventions ranging from environmental conservation and HIV prevention to policy advocacy and democratic governance are doomed to fall short of their full potential. We must work in partnership with local leaders, communities, and organizations to create and sustain true social change. Only by listening to the stories of poor communities, hearing and amplifying the voices of marginalized groups, and respecting the inherent capacity and expertise of local leaders will our work in the social sector bear fruit.

This philosophy is the foundation of the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy & Leadership Initiative, AGALI, a program that partners with leaders and communities around the world to transform adolescent girls’ lives. Recognizing that our data sources alone are inadequate to achieve the scale of change necessary, we collaborate with local experts to develop game-changing solutions that improve laws, policies, and programs for adolescent girls.

Case Study: Liberia

In Liberia, AGALI invested in the vision and aspirations of two women who had the audacity to believe they could successfully advocate for a national law to protect children. During Liberia’s 14-year civil war, up to 75% of women and girls suffered rape and sexual violence, and girls continue to be socially marginalized – prevented from attending school, forced to undergo female genital mutilation, and seen by many in their families and communities as disposable. Given these enormous challenges, AGALI never would have risked investing in the near impossibility of comprehensive legal protection for both girls and boys, had we focused merely on traditional data sources. Instead, we listened and trusted in the expertise of our ‘beneficiaries’ to successfully advocate for passage of the National Children’s Law, landmark legislation that is transforming the future of Liberia’s children for generations to come. A video case study documenting how we did it can be found here.

Challenges In Collecting The Data

Investing in ‘beneficiaries’ and recognizing the value of the knowledge and data they can provide us is risky. In the social sector’s existing view, using data from a randomized survey is unassailable. Using data from a village chief who may not have even completed primary school is not. But if we can acknowledge that our existing data sources are insufficient and that local communities may in fact have exactly the data that we need, we have the potential to transform our impact and the scalability of social sector initiatives.

Nonetheless, even programs that seek to prioritize beneficiary insights have a hard time collecting this data, as a few critical factors hinder our ability to listen to program participants and integrate their wisdom and expertise. First, while the social sector holds out monitoring and evaluation as a big priority, far too few funders are willing to invest the time and resources necessary to make this possible. Without significant support for both formative and summative evaluation, our collective understanding of social sector impact will remain limited. Secondly, a false dichotomy between social sector research and interventions prevents meaningful knowledge sharing. While social scientists collect data that could be invaluable for interventions, program staff rarely incorporates this data into the design and implementation of programs. Lastly, for an organization to effectively integrate data from project participants, there must be an institutional culture of learning, a willingness to recognize that we don’t have all the answers, and a desire to adapt our own models to better address the priorities of the very people who will be most affected by our interventions.

Case Study: Malawi

This was the approach AGALI adopted in Malawi. Rather than merely looking at statistics demonstrating the devastating effects of child marriage on girls’ health, education, and livelihoods, we went to the source – child marriage victims and local leaders who are advocating to increase the national legal age of marriage. AGALI is partnering with village chiefs, community-based organizations, and national advocates to enable young women to raise their voices and create their own solutions to the social and economic problems they face. In this video, Catherine, an adolescent girl from Malawi, shares her story of being kidnapped, escaping a forced marriage, and her own vision for finishing school and her future.

By creating a platform for Catherine and other girls to share their stories, AGALI has catalyzed a national dialogue about the need to end child marriage. AGALI leaders in Malawi are using the video as an advocacy tool to both change national policies and transform girls’ realities at the local level.

In addition to using video technology as an advocacy tool, AGALI builds the capacity of local leaders to do their own media advocacy. Through intensive workshops, AGALI leaders learn to use cutting edge participatory media technology to create digital stories – compelling short videos that capture their own experiences and the realities of adolescent girls in their communities. In this compilation, AGALI leaders highlight the diverse challenges facing adolescent girls at the grassroots level and the need to advocate for change. Beyond integrating media technology into their own advocacy initiatives, AGALI leaders are now teaching adolescent girls how to use this participatory technology to share their stories and advocate for their own needs.

The Takeaway

Seeing project ‘beneficiaries’ as experts turns the social sector on its head. Like it or not, the game has always been one in which we view the governments, foundations, and non-profits as the experts responding to the needs of less fortunate individuals and populations. And when our interventions fail, we invariably attribute these failures to the very communities that we seek to ‘help’ – the villagers who weren’t sufficiently skilled to maintain our overly-engineered pit toilets or the at-risk teenagers who didn’t have the drive necessary to graduate from our well-intentioned mentoring programs.

The time has come for us to upend the social sector’s dominant paradigm and recognize that ‘beneficiaries’ are not the communities in which we implement interventions. In fact, we are the true beneficiaries of the knowledge and expertise that local leaders and communities can generously share with us – if only we would ask.