The SDGs, Dobby and the Deathly Hallows

23 Sep

Just two days to go for the Quidditch World Cup 2015, oops, er.. the UN meeting in New York to announce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs have been accused of being bloated, some of them impossible to measure, and my favourite, “higgledy-piggledy.” The SDGs number 17, and have 169 associated targets. Did they just pull all that out of the Sorting Hat, was my first reaction. A grant-seeker’s nightmare, was my second.

First and second instincts apart, global goals do have their pluses. For one, as The Economist article points out, it has the whole world looking in the same direction, allowing for focused investment and deeper impact. Think of all three houses coming together to fight Voldemort (T silent). Measurability brings with it greater transparency, and boosts confidence that investments will bring rewards, thereby attracting corporates and wealthy philanthropists. And sure, technology (the modern-day equivalent of tessomancy, or reading tea leaves) makes it possible to accurately assess both the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution.

But there are pitfalls. And the pitfalls lie not with the SDGs, but the grants that will follow them.

None of the following is an original argument – it has been made countless times by advocates of local resource mobilisation, also known as the Order of the Phoenix. But since we are on the threshold of a new global order led by wise and powerful witches and wizards, it’s worthwhile to repeat them. (Those who don’t learn from history… and all that.)

The emphasis on making every knut count implies that even more of the money is earmarked for actuals on the ground – syringes, life-saving drugs, food… This puts pressure on the money that’s available for human resources. Not among the large primary recipients of grants, but among the recipient organisations at the end of the line. No, not Dobby. The grassroots non-profit (the jargon we in the sector like to use is CBO – community-based organisation) that is granted a “project” to run, does so with minimal staff (and house elves) just about qualified to implement task ‘x.’

In an ideal world, a CBO would have its own larger vision of what it must do to benefit the community it serves. It would then raise funds from local and other sources to do what it must do. But seldom is that the case. Most small organisations have their eyes fixed on the project – and the project alone. Suddenly, usually at the time when the grant is coming to an end, they are exhorted to diversify income sources, find the Philosopher’s Stone of Sustainability and basically produce a fourth name out of the Triwizard Cup.

Would they have done things differently if they’d been told that one day the grant would come to end? That’s a bit like saying would Harry Potter have done things differently had he known “neither can live while the other survives”?

Usually, once the grant ends, once the success of the programme leads to its logical close, priorities shift. The CBO either scrambles for existence, closes down or what’s most common, waits for the next project.

And here’s where grant-makers can learn from The Deathly Hallows, and do things differently this time around.

For those not tuned into Potterwatch (oh, but you’ve stopped reading a long while ago), a quick and dirty guide to the Deathly Hallows. To defeat death, a wizard has to be master of three magical objects known as the Deathly Hallows, comprising the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak.

Here’s our version of the Hallows for grant-making.

  • The Elder Wand: Build a strong core. In other words, strengthen the organisation by helping build a strong core team, a powerful vision and solid systems.
  • The Resurrection Stone: Strengthen communication, to bring back to life forgotten, dead or non-existent supporters.
  • The Invisibility Cloak: Wear the cloak of invisibility. Enable the organisation to have such a diversified portfolio of supporters that your project is but a small part of the whole.

For more tips on how not to be a Muggle with grant-making, see

Let the fun and games begin, at the World Quidditch Cup 2015, in New York!

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