Nothing Lasts Forever: Exit Planning is Essential for INGOs
For all the energy, time, and resources INGOs invest in starting new initiatives, their plans for moving on are often sorely lacking.
Whether it is transitioning from INGO status to a nationally governed entity or withdrawing from the country, an INGO planning for closure of its country presence is faced with a dilemma: How can the organization responsibly manage such a contraction when doing so pitts its commitment to core values against the cold hard reality of resources that have run out? What does responsible transition or exit look like? How can organizations better prepare to uphold their vision, values, and commitments during and after they leave?
While many organizations plan for transition and exit at the project level, and these plans are sometimes included in country-level strategic plans, INGOs don’t often define milestones or benchmarks for country-level transition or exit. Poor planning and execution of country transitions and exits contribute to the very critique of neocolonial aspects of aid. They manifest as, for instance:
- Disgruntled staff, partners, and stakeholders;
- Organizational inertia and dissonance;
- Gradual bleeding of already scarce resources;
- Insufficient resources to support transition and exit;
- Focusing on financial risk at the expense of staff and organizational legacy; and
- Underinvestment in staff income security and opportunities for professional growth.
- All of this increases the perception that INGOS are not accountable to the people and communities they serve.
Consequently, I argue that preparing for transition and exit is a matter of strategic importance and should be addressed at the very beginning of the work in that country. By naming a transition/exit strategy as a priority, investing early in its design, and maintaining this commitment throughout the program/project life cycle, INGOs can uphold their missions and values through the end of their initiatives and beyond.
Admittedly, the prevailing challenge is operationalizing this advice. “Walking the talk” is often quite difficult.
I therefore recommend the following:
- Review and adopt the lessons from the excellent Stopping as Success Project;
- Set organizational intentions, including principles, benchmarks, and policies for exit and transition;
- Build transition and exit into the organizational ways of working and strategic planning processes—i.e., viewing them not as a failure but as normal parts of the business cycle;
- Earmark unrestricted organizational resources for transition and exit;
- Define transition and exit activities as core costs and advocate that donors accept them as an accrual (similar to how staff severance is accepted as a core cost);
- Dedicate time and resources to staff wellness as it relates to transition and exit; and
- Balance the need for financial risk management with enhancing impact and legacy.
Commitment to aligning an INGO’s mission with on-the-ground realities starts with recognizing transition and exit as organizational imperatives that need to be planned for well in advance. Planning should begin years (as opposed to months) before such a strategy is needed and be included as part of country-level strategic planning and program/project design.
The true test of an organization’s legacy and, ultimately, its impact will be how well the transition is planned, managed, and carried out. Therefore, it is time to prioritize responsible transition, exit, and closure.