Over at the GiveWell blog, they’ve been asking some difficult but incredibly important questions about international aid projects. Back in July, they explored the goal of sustainability. Like GiveWell, we’ve noticed that sustainability is more and more often included as a requirement from funders yet it often remains vaguely defined and difficult to quantify. VillageReach decided to establish businesses precisely because we believe that for many infrastructure gaps in the health system, they are the only truly sustainable way to address the problem. And our social business VidaGas is a self sustaining organization, but as GiveWell notes, it has been a larger challenge achieving sustainability on the program side. Even though we attempted to plan for long-term sustainability from day one in our Mozambique program, it has been challenging to convince the government to maintain the system even when we can show evidence of significant success. The inertia of the status quo is a powerful obstacle to sustainable change.
So, this begs the question- how do you define and measure sustainability and how important should it be as a goal of a program? This is especially important when you consider that sustainability often ends up being a trade-off with other qualities- for example, in order to make our program as sustainable as possible, we try to only include elements that we know the government is capable of carrying on after we leave- this can mean sacrificing impactful elements because they are too expensive, too labor intensive or just too unprecedented for the government to assume control of. GiveWell concludes that sustainability should be considered “a desirable goal, but not a reasonable requirement.” The goal of sustainability is fundamental to VillageReach but a more candid conversation about what this truly means could be of enormous benefit to funders and implementers alike, both of whom tend to through the word around without really questioning its value. On a similar theme- Phillip LaRocco has a humorous note to the “development posse” about lightening up- admitting when things are difficult and cutting through the clichés (of which sustainability certainly must be one of the most ubiquitous!) to truly impact the communities we serve.
GiveWell also explores investing in a small charity. They note that “giving to VillageReach is a high-risk, high-upside proposition” and honestly, we couldn’t agree more. VillageReach is proud of its dynamic and innovative approach- our President Allen is fond of saying that our theory of change boils down to “we see, we do, they see, they do.” Basically, we recognize the problem and because we are small and agile we can create a customized model to address it and then advocate for both the recognition of the problem and the adoption of our model to others. GiveWell was impressed by our rigorous monitoring and evaluation of our program, an expensive proposition that many small non-profits forgo because they view it as a luxury. We, however, see quantitative evidence of impact a fundamental necessity in order to convince others of the value of our model. But it is true that the same things that make us high-impact and allow for change on a scale disproportionate to our size also mean that we don’t have the security of a large, highly diversified non-profit working in a well understood area. We rely on donors to recognize both the problem of last mile health system strengthening and the value of our solution. We are thrilled to have GiveWell endorse our approach and we hope to report more success in the future.