As an American citizen, I have been raised with the steadfast belief that bigger is better.
From bulk-buying trips to Costco to extra ketchup on burgers to five-bedroom houses for three-person families, the concept of “more is more” has been ingrained in my star-spangled DNA. Whether you like it or not, if you are a citizen of the United States, it is probably ingrained in yours too.
This mantra of “In More We Trust” also applies to the way that many people think about nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. A nongovernmental organization is defined by the United Nations as “a not-for-profit group, principally independent from government, which is organized on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good.” NGOs do important work to address a broad range of social issues, from children’s rights to public health. Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are examples of well-known international NGOs, with annual operating budgets ranging from tens to hundreds of million US dollars.
These huge multinational organizations are doing critical work and should absolutely continue to receive funding from private donors. But while attending The Heart Series, a two-day conference in Los Angeles centered on the intersection of business, innovation and social good, I was struck by the power of going deep vs. going big when it comes to development work.
I was particularly moved by a speech from Ian Rosenberger, the founder of Team Tassy, a nongovernmental organization operating in Haiti. Ian told us of Tassy, a Haitian teenager that he met while helping with post-earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in 2010. Tassy had a large and cancerous tumor in his face at the time. Ian worked with friends in the US to raise funds for Tassy to receive life-saving surgery in Pennsylvania. But after Tassy received treatment and was cancer-free, Ian realized that it was not enough if he was left uneducated and without job prospects for the future. Health was important, but it was not enough to lift Tassy out of life-threatening poverty. It was then that Ian crystallized the mission of Team Tassy: operating on the belief that “the cure for poverty is a good, dignified job,” Team Tassy is committed to doing whatever it takes to get their clients to a place of job security.
Team Tassy’s model is one that goes deep instead of big. The organization focuses its efforts on ONE community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, called Menelas. The Menelas community is made up of 500 families, or approximately 3,000 people. The goal of Team Tassy is to serve every single Menelas resident, using a “block by block approach.” Rather than boasting about constant expansion on their website, the organization is focused on finishing the job that it started: doing whatever it takes to lift one community out of poverty by securing good, dignified jobs for each and every adult in Menelas. Instead of providing one piece of the empowerment equation for a large population, they are providing the entire equation for one community, starting with child and adult education and continuing to job placement with the organization’s list of employment partners. Team Tassy also addresses basic needs like debt and housing, working with partners to find sustainable solutions for every member of the Menelas community. This organization has embedded itself deeply into the community it serves, rather than spreading itself thinly across an entire country or region.
A visit to Team Tassy’s website doesn’t reveal a lot of statistics that you might find on the website of a large NGO like Doctors Without Borders or Save the Children. There are no bar graphs boasting exponential growth or lofty expansion. There are, instead, profiles of a few of the families who have been served by Team Tassy, accompanied by photographs of smiling faces. After listening to Ian and Vivien Luk, the Executive Director of Team Tassy, speak at The Heart Series, it is clear that they don’t prescribe to the “bigger is better” mentality that we hear from many international NGOs. In a country that has received $13.5 billion in foreign aid since the devastating 2010 earthquake, the “go deep instead of big” mission of Team Tassy sets it apart from many of the other aid organizations operating in Haiti. Although NGOs must walk a fine line between focusing a great deal on the work and not enough on sharing results (and, frankly, this is something Team Tassy could work on) it was refreshing to hear that Ian and Vivien were committed to finishing the mission of lifting the entire community of Menelas out of poverty before jumping into another boast-worthy development project.
The debate of “going deep” vs. “going big” is fascinating because it cuts straight to the core of the human ego. Think about your own beliefs: would you rather give money to a NGO that is working with a multimillion dollar budget across fifty countries, but perhaps only addressing one of the issues associated with poverty (such as healthcare, education, job placement)? Or would you rather support an organization like Team Tassy that is addressing every piece of the poverty puzzle for a relatively small community of people in need? Would you rather tell your friends, colleagues and family members that you give to Amnesty International, an organization that they know and respect, or to Team Tassy, a small organization that lacks the flashy marketing campaigns of larger organizations but goes deep on the ground?
Is bigger truly better, or is it more important to actually finish the jobs we start? I’m increasingly beginning to the think that it’s the latter. When we go deep instead of going big, we are able to hold ourselves more accountable and to avoid the “foreign aid ADHD” that leads to half-finished development projects that suck resources without delivering results. Haiti is the perfect example of this resource suck: five years and $13.5 billion dollars after the devastating 2010 earthquake, 100,000 Haitian citizens remain internally displaced, living in ramshackle temporary structures throughout the country. In addition, a Brookings Institution survey in 2014 revealed that 74% of families that were uprooted by the earthquake continue to consider themselves displaced, although they are not living in displacement camps. 60.9% of these families say that their living conditions have gotten worse since the earthquake, despite the billions of dollars of aid pouring into the country. That, to me, sounds like one BIG failure.