Of all the issues I’ve had with NGOs, meetings and ‘trainings’ is the issue which which has driven me the most crazy, and provided the most hilarity. Don’t get me wrong – trainings can be a core part of NGO work, I run them myself! Just last week Marie Stopes needed to teach our staff how to insert family planning methods, and it worked really well. Often though trainings are a colossal waste of money and time, and more importantly devalue learning by putting barriers, or distractions in the way. I think this is so important, I’ve created my own ridiculous jargon phrase 'learning distraction' to emphasise the point. Maybe it can be new NGO speak!
I have so many problems with trainings and meetings, but I’ll limit myself to 7, no… 8.
1) Allowances for participants. Allowances for transport, accommodation, day allowances. ‘Big men’ turn up for 30 minutes to get a wad of cash, reinforcing harmful cultural stereotypes. As well as wasted money, it’s a learning distraction. How can you concentrate on learning when you are waiting for more money than you have seen in weeks? Friends have told me that they sit there all day planning how to spend their 50,000. At one meeting there was nearly a riot when allowances were less than expected. 30 minutes was spent discussing the situation. It was telling when a participant said “this training will be useless if we are not facilitated properly.” In the minds of the participants, I think he was right. At another one day meeting, I was handed 150,000 in allowances, plus a 8 gig pen drive “from the American People.” All 40 of us were. You do the math.
2) Lack of important and practical material taught in effective ways. Material should be evidenced based, with experts, or at least people knowledgeable in their field teaching new information or skills. Models and frameworks are tossed into the ether, never to be used again. Material is often not taught in effective ways that will be practically useful. Much time is also wasted on inefficient group work, which is often a mix of sharing good ideas which most people already know, and reinforcement of bad ones. I’m all for participation, but it needs to be well thought through.
3) General Opulence. Meetings are held in the fanciest hotels. Food is fancier than local wedding food. Everyone is given wee books and pens (and sometimes pen drives!). Bottled water is given on demand. This makes trainings and meetings into a status symbol and I think contributes to a space where people are trying to impress each other, rather than learn together. A huge learning distraction.
4) Meaninglessness of resolutions and action points made. Of the 10 or so meetings/trainings I’ve been to, almost none of the resolutions made have been carried out. So far I’ve been elected onto 3 follow up ‘committees’ that have never met, and never will.
5) Paying the people organising the meeting extra money on top of their salary. Why do you pay staff extra to do something that should be part of their regular job? This just encourages NGO staff to hold unnecessary trainings to fill out their wallets as well as their time.
6) Wasted person hours. Half a days material covered in 2 days. Two days material covered in a week. For our malaria meeting 320 hours of quality patient care were taken from us, for next to nothing gained.
7) Unnecessary attendees. People who only speak Acholi at English meetings (happens at most meetings I’ve been to). Random local government officials who have nothing to do with what’s being discussed. ‘Big Men/Women’ who hijack the meeting with speeches and other agendas. Having unnecessary attendees present causes random off-topic discussions bringing yet another learning distraction.
8) Use of unhelpful NGO jargon, which muddy the waters and provide yet another learning distraction. Much NGO speak has become a quagmire. People all know vaguely what the word means without being able to pin it down. There is also straight confusion, where the speaker means one thing, and the listener hears another. ‘Volunteer’ for example to the western ear means working for no pay out of the goodness of you heart, while to a local listener can mean quite a well paid job! Here’s my NGO-Speak Bingo game I use at meetings to entertain myself. I’ll generally win within the first 30 minutes of the meeting. I’m not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous.
Scaling Or Scale up
High-Impact or Impact
Lacor Hospital (the biggest mission hospital in Uganda) has a great solution. They don’t let any staff go to trainings and meetings unless they absolutely have to. And it works really well. When I asked a hospital boss why they don’t allow their staff to go, he said. “Trainings are usually 100% useless and they waste time. Why should our staff go?”
When we do hold trainings, here’s 8 ways to make them better
- Don’t give allowances. The exception perhaps, is an actual refund of public transport costs for people who don’t live in town. If you’re doing a training in the village, people already live there. If you are training educated people, most of them live in town so no transport is needed
- Hold a lot less trainings. Many don’t need to happen. A classic category which are often unnecessary are “stakeholder” meetings, where the NGO invites government officials, religious leaders, community members etc. to tell them about the project in their neighbourhood. They achieve very little and can even add barriers when officials inevitably suggest more meetings, or use the opportunity to add unnecessary bureaucracy to the project. I was really impressed that a hundred-million dollar maternity project we’re working with had zero stakeholder meetings. They talked with us, trained our nurses and then started.
- Invite only people that are going to benefit directly. Target carefully. Don’t invite people who only speak Acholi if you are going to hold the training in English. Don’t invite big people just for the sake of it. Invite people who will be keen to learn, and have a lot to gain.
- Get Experts and top quality presenters to take sessions where you don’t have the expertise. Spend your money here, rather than on other areas of the training. Don’t just get your NGO staff to cover topics that they are not experts in. If you’re going to do it, do it properly.
- Hold meetings and trainings in more austere locations. The District Council hall in Gulu costs only 10,000 to hire. Many trainings and meetings could be squeezed into NGO offices.
- Hold shorter trainings. Can you do this in one day rather than two? What material is less important that you can cut? Can you remove the morning or afternoon tea break?
- Serve Beans and Greens with Posho and Rice for lunch. Why should every meeting have 2 kinds of meat? Make the thing less about the lunch and more about the learning. People will still appreciate a free lunch (eventually, after they get over the meatless disappointment J).
- Ban the Jargon words (start with the bingo table) which can’t be used by trainers or participants. Be specific, use real life examples. Give people a list of words at the start of the training that they aren’t allowed to use. Make it fun by rewarding people who notice when the banned words are used.