Judy Sadlier of the Guatemala Non-Profit Network (GNN) was pleasantly overwhelmed by turnout for their introductory meeting. The organizer from Antigua welcomed more than thirty five people representing a score of NGOs and not for profits from around Lake Atitlan. Collectively, her audience reaches way out beyond the impoverished and illiterate Department of Solola. Some of these people are designing their work to be scale-able and build it to roll throughout Guatemala and beyond. Others have more focused and comparatively, modest ambitions.
During the introductions, it would become apparent that these organizations are creatively addressing chronic concerns around health and education. For example, they are introducing micro-finance, micro-consignment, women’s empowerment, mobile libraries, vocational trainings, environmental stewardship, animal health, violence prevention and security. As exhaustive as their array of offerings is, still more impressive is the tens of thousands of people served by this handful. But, this powerful and dedicated audience came in with plenty of skepticism. After all, collaborations have been proposed before. And, nobody was particularly cheered because Ms. Sadlier’s Facebook page revealed that “… some call (her) Queen of the NGOs..” On the other hand, they were happy to learn that she earned her crown by establishing and growing the First (Guatemalan) Women’s Network in 1975.
She began her short remarks by enthusing that there are an equal number of local groups willing to participate but that they were unable to attend this meeting.
“We are going to explore the idea of bringing everyone together,” she began. And speaking from experience, she added, “The process must be ‘organic.’”
“In 2005-6 NGOs were not talking together and there was no publicity about them. So, we developed the Community Forum in Antigua to network opportunities and, from a meeting like this one, the idea of the GNN began. This Network schedules a series of presentations to be followed by a meeting. GNN produced a special event showcasing ten participants in order to raise awareness of their work within their communities and, secondarily, to raise funds. We now have a site, http://www.guatemala-ngos.net, with 75 members posting their profiles, job opportunities and events.”
The size of the crowd drove the meeting. The short but numerous introductions would make it necessary to forgo any agenda and cut right to a 20 minute brainstorming session. This part was peppered with good ideas and invitations. Someone advocated for sharing training instructors and materials; another person promoted exploring themes of best practices for small groups. Could we combine to find ways make a wider impact? Get on the radio? Develop volunteers? Share medicines? Actually collaborate this time?
When all was said, the demographics revealed only one Mayan founded organization; the rest were founded by North American and European women. That is: the most glaringly absent were representatives from the big name NGOs. Players like Habitat for Humanity, Nature Conservancy and the European NGOs that have greater access to government connections and the deepest pockets did not attend this meeting. Is it that they do not want to network or need to cooperate?
Setting up some kind of umbrella group for coordination and communications among NGOs is excellent and there are structural barriers. Beyond the obvious distinctions of capitalization, there are two general classes of missions: those that promote culture and tourism and those that support health and welfare. All incorporate with restrictive “mission statements” to enable them to solicit grants and donors. So, expanding beyond the stated scope and scale to, say, share resources might be minor charter violation or it could be tantamount to fraud.
The task before the organizers is massive. They need some sweetener such as the ultimate ability to connect to something the members could not access alone – like NetHope.org’s shared technologies In any case, they must define common ground, attract a credible percentage of the groups and develop a unifying theme before the next disaster.