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Darin Martin

About Darin

How Nonprofits Can Avoid Reinventing the Square Wheel

It’s like reinventing the wheel, only worse.

When it comes to helping those in need, charities should strive for efficiency and effectiveness, which is why many charities have an Aid Distribution Program. These programs deliver the good and usable excess from one market to cover the deficiencies of another. One of the most important components of an Aid Distribution Program is the means by which the aid items are delivered to the people in need.

In establishing the framework their distribution efforts, charities should ask themselves a few preliminary questions such as, “Do we understand the need and the underlying conditions that create the need?,” “Are we in a position to provide the support that is needed?,” “What is the most efficient and effective way to distribute aid to those in need?,” and perhaps most importantly, “Do local programs already exist to which we can lend our efforts and resources?” When questions like these are not asked, charitable efforts can end up reinventing a lot of square wheels.

Square Wheels

There is a reason why vehicles do not use square wheels. It is universally understood and accepted that square wheels are a bad idea, which is why charities should avoid them.

According to Wikipedia, “Reinventing the square wheel is the practice of unnecessarily engineering artifacts that provide functionality already provided by existing standard artifacts (reinventing the wheel) and ending up with a worse result than the standard (a square wheel). This is an anti-pattern which occurs when the engineer is unaware or contemptuous of the standard solution or does not understand the problem or the standard solution sufficiently to avoid problems overcome by the standard.”

In the context of humanitarian aid, it is when well-intentioned people try to help but end up producing results that don’t really help. It is when “outsiders,” armed with a cursory knowledge of underlying issues, venture into a circumstance to create conditions and apply solutions they believe will lead to a better quality of life, yet fail to do so. Not only do their solutions fall short of their potential, but they may also create new and unnecessary problems. The results can be counterproductive to the initial reason for getting involved and might have been avoided had they partnered with an established local entity that is already working toward the same goal.

Relying on local organizations who understand the problems and are already working on the best and most efficient ways to address them makes sense. But what makes a good program partner and how does it all work?

What is a Program Partner?

A program partner is an organization that performs charitable activities on behalf of a charity, according to the charity’s instructions, and in compliance with the charity’s tax exempt goals. Not every organization can, or should, qualify as a program partner. Finding a good program partner takes time, patience, and good investigative skills. Sometimes all it takes is a referral from a trusted source that has already put in the work and research. Either way, knowing your program partner is paramount in ensuring that the aid and resources given will be provided to those in need.

Whether finding your own program partner or following up on a referral, the concepts below provide a solid foundation to the process.

Trust but Verify

There are certain industries which are built upon the premise of doubt and suspicion. Charity work is not one of them. Helping others requires trusting people who have consistently proven to do what they say they do. While a charity may engage a potential program partner with a foundation of trust, they must still verify everything as a matter of due diligence. A potential program partner should be willing and able to provide registration documentation and references to corroborate who they are. Visits to previous program sites, interviews with those who helped in the distribution, and those who received the aid should verify the program partner’s claims. However it is done, a charity must be able to demonstrate their due diligence activity to substantiate their program partners.

Learn and Align

Marcus Aurelius “The Wise,” Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher wrote, “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” These words are a guide for the charity-minded. Those in a position to help and support should listen to the insights and experience of those already engaged in the fight. If beans and band-aids are what are needed but somebody brings a pie, they’re not really helping no matter how delicious the pie may be. Charities need to ensure they have both a clear understanding of the problem and a clear understanding of what needs to be done. Armed with that knowledge, the charity must then look closely at itself to determine if their charitable goals and those of the program partner are in alignment.

Define and Agree

At this stage, when both the charity and the program partner are aligned and in agreement to work together, it is important to define each entity’s role. The purpose of the relationship between the charity and their program partner is for the program partner to act, on behalf of the charity, by helping the local people, in accordance with the charity’s tax exempt purposes. If humanitarian aid in the form of relief goods is being distributed, it is important to make it clear that the goods, while in the possession of the program partner, belong to the charity and must be distributed according to the charity’s instructions. The defined roles and procedural agreements should be recorded and signed by each entity. Once these preliminary tasks are completed, the charity can commence their program through their program partner.

Follow Up and Inspect

The process for establishing a program partner ends the same way it begins. Trust, but verify. Inspect what you expect. There are many ways this can be accomplished. Charities must establish for themselves the manner in which they discover the who, what, when, where, why, and how their program partner distributed their aid. Receiving follow-up reports, visiting the program sites, and interviewing those involved is a great place to start.

Humanitarian aid is hard work. There are many cogs in the machine and it is imperative that they all work, from raising funds to seeking donations of goods to sourcing reliable partners to carrying out the relief efforts, not to mention satisfying the many audit and regulatory requirements along the way. It is hard work, but it is worth it. Aid Distribution Programs, operated in conjunction with local program partners, can be one of the most powerful, effective, and efficient ways a charity can help those in need. Once charities comprehend this, they can avoid the pitfalls of reinventing the square wheel.


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