Letter from Palestine #3

I am so pleased to share another letter from Nora Lester Murad. (To read this series from the beginning, please click here.)

Nora lives with her husband and three daughters in Israeli controlled East Jerusalem, in Palestine’s West Bank. In addition to her consulting work to NGOs, Nora has co-founded Dalia Association, a community foundation created and run by people who actually live in Palestine – a rarity in a land dominated by foreign aid (and therefore foreign priorities). Dalia Association’s purpose is to get beyond the politics and just take care of the people.

Nora has blessed us by agreeing to guest blog here, to share what it is like to try to run a Community Benefit Organization amid the chaos and insanity that is day-to-day life in Palestine. You can find her first post here, and her bio is below her post.

I hope you will continue to welcome Nora and Dalia Association into your hearts.

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Dear Hildy,
Thanks so much for asking about the strategic planning process we did for Dalia Association. I hope your blog readers will have some reflections that will help us in the future.

Our strategic planning process was constrained by our donor, an excellent foundation overall that tries to help applicants access funds by getting involved in shaping the grant proposal.

They suggested that their grants committee would be much more likely to approve our application if we specified that we’d be seeking an international consultant, rather than a local consultant, to facilitate our strategic planning. They said that in their experience, it is worth the expense to get an objective point of view from someone who specializes in community foundations.

Were they helping us to get a grant that we would not otherwise have gotten? Were they passing on valuable information they’ve learned from years of experience around the world? Were they driving our agenda? Or did they not fully comprehend the assets we have right here in our own community? I suspect all these things may have played a role.

The strategic planning retreat itself had some good outcomes. We invited some non-board members to bring new perspectives to our thinking, and this helped deepen our relationships with some key community members who we’ve been trying to involve. We recruited two new board members and two committee members from among those guests.

The board itself came to new clarity and stronger consensus about the need to focus on successful implementation of our three grantmaking pilots over the next 18 months.

And the international consultant became a champion for us, which I think was helped along by the drama we went through when we took a break from our planning to observe a nearby village being completely surrounded by an illegal Israeli settlement. That incident led to us all being detained and questioned by Israeli soldiers for a very tense 20 minutes or so.

But were those achievements worth one-third of our annual budget? The plan itself is unimpressive. It documents what we are planning to do and puts it into a framework that donors and others can relate to.

But is it a plan we can follow? Or is it just a good idea on paper?

As in other third world and regions of conflict, planning in Palestine is very, very difficult. True, the political situation is uncertain, but this is not the challenge. We can pretty realistically predict that the situation on the ground will continue to get worse.

We will continue to have no access to Gaza, nor will Gazans be able to reach us (which is why our Gaza board member did not participate in our strategic planning).

We will continue to be able to enter Jerusalem and Israel only when Palestinian ID holders are granted travel permits by the Israeli military (almost impossible to get). We have had to schedule all our pilots inside the West Bank, as our community organizer has been denied a travel permit.

We will continue to be delayed and frustrated by over 500 mobility barriers (staffed and unstaffed military checkpoints, trenches, concrete blocks, etc.) that divide the West Bank itself into bantustans. The occupation is something completely out of our control, but we can fairly predict how it will affect our operations.

Sadly, all of that is the predictable part of doing our work here.

On the other hand, our financial situation is unpredictable. We’ve planted many, many seeds, but because what we’re doing is so new, and most donors have little or no experience in the Middle East, it is very difficult to predict what we will or won’t get in terms of funding, which means we don’t know if we can hire more staff, expand our projects, or do any of what we have planned to accomplish.

For example, we have one donor who just this month approved our grant request for $25,000/year. We made that request in September 2006 — twenty months ago!

The delays were due to a combination of bureaucracy and indifference and arrogance, with a lot of preconceived notions, misconceptions and stereotypes added in. I say that because after we passed all the administrative hurdles, they shared that they then went through months and months and months of internal discussion about the “risks” of supporting us.

How do you prove that you’re not a terrorist? How do you prove your innocence? How do we prove we are doing real community development work, good work that is sorely needed?

We have another potential donor who is trying to convince us that our grant amounts of $3,000 are too high. They say that local donors who are poor will be discouraged to give if their contribution is so low in relation to grant amounts.

This was such a strange idea to me that I had to think really hard just to understand this feedback.

Then I realized that in the west, individuals make contributions because they want to have an impact. They want to make a noticeable difference.

But here in Palestine, that is not the motivation at all. In both Islam and Christianity, charitable giving is a regular part of the faith, and it is therefore simply proportional to income. In other words, people give money here primarily from either a religious or social obligation. They expect their generosity to be rewarded by God.

And so there is no shame in giving small amounts. Each family is expected to give in relation to their means. People don’t give because they want to affect some particular change through an organization. And if they did, they would give directly to the organization they want to support, NOT to a community foundation that will make the ultimate decision about how the funds are used.

Now we have to decide, are we going to modify our grant request to increase the chances of funding, since the donor has a specific way of looking at grant amounts? Or are we going to stick with what we know about our local environment and people? This time, I think we will stick to our own plan knowing that we may lose the funding.

Being a grant recipient certainly is helping us to get clearer and more committed to the type of grantmaker that WE want to be. Little things like returning emails, giving full attention when you talk to people, saying up front how long decisions will take rather than saying “in the next few weeks” for months and months — these are the behaviors that communicate to grantees that you respect them as agents of social change (not just as “applicants”) and that you are interested in their success in achieving their mission (not just in “completing the funded project”).

Well, I’ve wandered from the topic of strategic planning a bit. In the future, we expect our resources to become more predictable, which will enable better planning. We hope (and plan) to influence the donor community to be more accountable and responsive. We also hope (and plan) to be less dependent on them once we have more resources under our local control. I anticipate that our strategic planning will look at lot different then!

Best regards to all,
Nora

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Until 2004, Nora Lester Murad combined a life of teaching at Bentley College in Massachusetts with a life of consulting to governments, foundations, corporations and community organizations on matters of racism and intercultural understanding.

In 2004, Nora and her husband moved their three daughters halfway around the world, to the Palestinian community of Beit Hanina, in Israeli controlled East Jerusalem. “My husband is Palestinian, and we wanted to be near his family. We wanted the girls to grow up with a deep sense of belonging to both Palestinian and American cultures, with full access to both sides of their heritage and languages.”

Nora is now the volunteer Executive Director of Dalia Association, a new community foundation that mobilizes resources for Palestinian-led social change and sustainable development in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and the Palestinian communities inside Israel.

For the next post in this series, head here.

2 Responses to Letter from Palestine #3

  1. Hi there!

    I read your musings on the frustrations of strategic planning with much interest. I recommend that you’ll read Henry Mintzberg’s book – “The rise and fall of strategic planning.”

    It gives an in-depth account of the origins of strategic planning and why corporate America abandoned it in the late 1970s. The interesting thing is that as soon as the corporate world dumped it, NGOs (oops! Community benefit organisations) picked it up!

    Surendran
    Colombo, Sri Lanka

  2. Surendran:
    My copy of Rise and Fall is so marked up it is almost illegible from all my notes. Great recommendation – thanks!
    Hildy