Recently our small, Tanzania-based NGO held an extraordinary number of meetings with social businesses, other NGOs, researchers, community-based organizations, and regional government agencies to discuss new and existing collaborations—all within the space of a month. It made us realize what a big chunk of our work perceiving, pursuing, and implementing collaborations has become over the years, and we’ve come to think of this work as our own kind of open source development.

In NGO-heavy countries like Tanzania, our sector is not known for collaboration, sharing resources, and pursuing common goals in a coordinated way. There is huge potential to increase efficiency, reduce redundancy, and ultimately increase overall impact.

Most organizations can boast at least a few partnerships, but over time, our reliance on collaboration has become part of our organizational DNA, akin to the free-flowing approach of traditional open source development. We seek to create open access to the poor rural communities we work with and open up access to our resources to enable others to ply their trade. We create a vision and strategy to support aligned activities, and then use a plug-and-play approach to engaging others—typically expert organizations that complement our generalist skill set. What we offer is a platform for others to build on.

Our NGO, FT Kilimanjaro (FTK), was founded in 2008 to implement a single project in partnership with the village of Mtakuja in northern Tanzania. The ambitious goal: to eradicate poverty from the community. Conceptually, the project borrowed much from the Millennium Villages Project, but practically speaking, it took a very different approach. With a staff of one, the need for a networked approach was clear from the beginning. Six years later, FTK has only three full-time employees even though our programs now include multiple projects with the potential to reach 75,000 people.

We have relied on others to bring rehabilitative services to children with disabilities, improve teaching methods in primary schools, install and sell thousands of household solar solutions, provide financial services, train farmers, pay for water and energy infrastructure, build roads, market energy-saving cook stoves, research problems, and train community-based organizations—all of this and more, often at no cost to FTK.

So what goes into developing an organization in this “open source” way? We’ve found that trust, humility, flexibility, and a strong foundation are the pillars of our model.

Trust: We spend a lot of time engaging with our communities and their leaders before we get started and continue this interaction once activities are underway. These relationships are fundamental; building trust is a requirement and forms the foundation for what we can do later. This is time-consuming work, but by doing it, we offer other organizations a shortcut into the community. Interestingly, we have found that this is appealing to businesses, NGOs, and academics alike.

Humility: To allow for this proliferation of collaboration, FTK has had to show some humility. Partners desire autonomy, and a level of ownership over their own processes and programs. Our less-structured approach allows for this. We choose our partners based on an assessment, assuring that their values align with ours and that their work helps accomplish the goals we have in mind. We do not dogmatically impose our will or ways.

Flexibility: Over the years we have developed nearly 40 collaborative initiatives with just as many partners. The diversity of partnerships—with organizations such as Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania, Global Cycle Solutions, and the Delft University of Technology —has proven that organizations from all sectors are open to partnering with an NGO. Flexibility is crucial, and it is fair to say that many of these partnerships have emerged quickly, by chance, or following a random meeting or a quick email without prior introduction. This may appear opportunistic rather than strategic, but it fits our organization. Our long-term commitment to one region allows us to be patient and flexible in terms of timing and the choosing of partners. We understand many of the problems in the area, and sometimes we just wait for the right solution to present itself.

A strong foundation: Not all partnerships are created equally. In 2011, TPC Company Ltd., a 16,000-hectare sugarcane estate and the largest employer in the Kilimanjaro Region, asked us to change our existing partnership from merely transactional to truly collaborative. By the end of 2012, we established a comprehensive partnership with TPC, giving FTK full access to TPC’s resources and expertise. This means we can use their earth-moving equipment to build roads, depend on their legal team for advice, and everything imaginable in between. We also receive significant financial support from TPC, and its CEO sits on our board to keep communication lines short, but FTK’s management remains autonomous and continues to follow its own organizational spirit. This unique partnership has strengthened our ability to partner with others, giving us instant credibility with commercial businesses that might otherwise have been wary of a do-gooder NGO. It has also helped us in our relationships with government agencies.

For the communities we work with, our model offers something extremely valuable, beyond any single skill or service one organization can offer people in poverty: a channel into a wide array of networks and organizations. Poverty has many characteristics, and one of them is a lack of access to the world beyond the village. FTK is their tool for inclusion into a world of potential solutions.

Without collaboration this would not be possible, and we believe more NGOs should take this view.

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