I often wonder if we were to construct a solutions enterprise to address global inequity and injustice, whether we would construct the nonprofit and civil society sectors as they are today.

Would we bind giving so tightly to tax law built around a capitalist economic framework or architect a road to progress that doesn’t run through charity bureaucracy, galas, annual reports, and all the things nonprofits must do before actually solving problems? We spend so much money to give money. And do we even give it away well? What if in our earnest effort to help, we’ve constructed an overly complex response that gets in its own way?

To gain greater insight into how outsiders can best help communities achieve the progress they envision, World Connect, the organization I lead, collaborated on original research in nine communities in Malawi led by researchers from Duke University and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and with funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Our paper reinforces that the best ideas for development can lie inside communities. The Malawians we interviewed have participated in generations of outsider-led aid efforts, most of which failed to truly listen to their needs and priorities. The fetishization of expertise and innovation as the best tools to scale relief for underserved populations has crowded out the essential work of collective action and institution development, which always starts locally.

The way the nonprofit and civil society structures are constructed assumes the fund seekers must navigate the world of resources to find those best suited to our mission and our purpose. Much vital energy for progress is lost in the resource chase and this approach doesn’t necessarily source the best ideas. This process is even harder for Global South communities as language, limited Internet bandwidth, experience bias, and other barriers to entry are exacerbated by existential crises like extreme poverty, climate insecurity and/or political instability. And even when we seekers reach the shores of resource opportunity, we are often confronted with harsh realities: thousands of applications for tens of awards, criteria requiring applicants be founders of the institution or first-time applicants or proposing a new innovation, ideally based in the U.S. or ideally not based in the U.S., budgets can’t be too big or too small, awards will only be made in communities where the funder’s staff works, and even if and when there is synergy with a funder, unsolicited proposals are not accepted, etc.

Read the full article about centering community voices by Pamela Nathenson at Alliance Magazine.