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									WHAT IS A DONOR?
By Steven Sampson, Ph.D.
Department of Social Anthropology,
Lund University, Lund, Sweden
All feedback to:
Orig. January 2001; revised December 2002.
Published in Newsletter of the European Association of Social Anthropology, Dec. 2002.

[Authors note: The author has done ethnographic research on democracy assistance in the
Balkans and has also worked as consultant for various Danish, Swedish and EU projects in
Romania, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo. At present I am in a collaborative project (led by
Keith Brown of Brown U.) on democracy assistance in ex-Yugoslavia. In addition, I am
currently doing a history of the OSCE’s democratization efforts in Kosovo with the task of
setting up benchmarks for the “handover” of OSCE projects to local Kosovar “ownership”,
and a study of anti-corruption initiatives in the Balkans. This paper, written in early 2001, was
part of the OSCE Donor’s Manual for Local Kosovar NGOs, a manual published by the
OSCE Mission in Kosovo and the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation, a local grant-giving
foundation with whom I had worked since 1999. The manual was aimed at the newly
established Kosovo NGOs, who often felt frustrated by their inability to obtain funding in a
world of international funders and project applications which was quite strange to them, if not
intimidating. The Donor Manual thus offered information about various international donor
organizations operating in Kosovo, their criteria for grants, a glossary of key terms in the
world of projects and civil society, guidelines for formulating project proposals, plus my own
essay on what was essentially the anthropology of donors. The manual subsequently appeared
in English, Albanian, Serbian and Turkish and though somewhat outdated, is still used in
some training venues. As part of the manual, the intention of “What is a Donor?” was to show
Kosovo organizations that the international donor organizations could be understood. The
donors were not simply self-serving, naive or corrupt, as everyday “donor bashing” discourse
had it. I sought to show that the chances of obtaining funds were better if you “got inside the
donors’ head”. As I wrote the essay, it dawned on me that the most relevant text for
understanding international donors is Mauss’ The Gift. Donors are gift givers. These gifts are
given with conditions. And the world of international civil society development is filled with
“grant-givers” and “grant-takers” in an ever more sophisticated chain. It is a chain that begins
with the international donors’ negotiation of a budget line, their search for “a strategy”, the
local donor offices’ incantations of “Let’s coordinate” and down to the frustrated lament of
the local Kosovar NGOs that “the donors are not being transparent with us”. These are the
axes around which rotates “the social life of projects”, a process which I have elaborated
elsewhere (in C. Hann and E. Dunn (eds) Civil Society) and which I am still working on as I
both participate in and do research on democracy assistance in the Balkans. I thank Lazslo
Kurti for the possibility to disseminate this essay to a wider audience, since the advice I offer
certainly applies far beyond Kosovo. Comments welcome.]

This article appeared in the Donor Manual for Kosovar NGOs (2001) published by the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Kosovo in
cooperation with the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation. The manual, containing information
on all donors operating to support NGOs plus a glossary of key terms, has appeared in
English, Albanian, Serbian and Turkish and is available through the OSCE Dept. of
Democratisation, Civil Society/NGO division and on the website of the Humanitarian
Community Information Center (HCIC-Prishtina) website. This document may be circulated
with proper attribution. It represents solely the views of the author. Comment/critiques

Donors are often surrounded by an aura of mystery. For local NGOs seeking funds or
inspiration, donors may seem “divine”, being the source of all that is good, wealthy,
interesting and powerful. They can do no wrong. For other NGOs, especially when
disappointed for lack of funds, donors are “diabolical”, considered the cause of all our
problems; they are accused of being cynical, hypocritical, dishonest or even corrupt.

In fact, donors are like the rest of us: they are people with good intentions. But they are also
people who work in organizations and who have their own interests. Donor representatives
and their organizations frequently operate with unclear mandates and even conflicting goals.
Donors may make serious mistakes, many of them avoidable, but they are by and large
mistakes which are unintended. Donors, like the rest of us, operate in a real world of
inadequate information and poor coordination. In short, donors are neither from heaven, nor
hell, nor outer space. They are people. People with specific kinds of resources, goals and
interests. While donors may speak of themselves as a “donor organization” or refer to
themselves as a “donor community”, it ultimately comes down to how individuals act in
specific situations.

The goal of this short essay is to describe donors’ resources, goals and interests so that
Kosovar NGOs can better understand them. Understanding what donors are and how they see
the world can help Kosovar NGOs achieve their own goals more effectively. It can mean
better cooperation with donors, and eventually more support from donors to the Kosovar

There is no accepted wisdom about donors. Everyone has their own opinion about what a
good donor is. My own view in this essay comes from having worked as a low-level, free
lance consultant for international donors and with local NGOs in Romania, Albania, Bosnia
and Kosovo. I am an American social anthropologist living in Denmark, working at a
Swedish University, with some knowledge of how civil society organizations work here, “up
north”, where the main donor is the government. In Kosovo I have worked for a Danish
organization, Dialogue Development, who are helping to implement EU assistance to the
Kosovar Civil Society Foundation. The KCSF is an NGO set up to assist Kosovar NGOs. It is
itself a donor. But the KCSF must also find money from other donors. In this sense, working
with both donors and recipients, I have had the advantage of having to deal with many points
of view. I am at times an agent of an international donor (Danish aid, the EU, the KSCF), and
at other times I am looking for additional donors. I also have my own personal interest: to
make Kosovar NGOs more effective so that eventually they will not be dependent on donors,
especially foreign donors, but instead act as partners with them.

To be a donor is to give. I am a teacher of social anthropology. One of the most important
books in the history of Anthropology is called “The Gift”, written in 1914 by the French
sociologist Marcel Mauss. Mauss understood that in any gift giving relationship, it is always
the giver who has the power. No gift is ever “free”. The receiver is usually obligated to give
back something, sooner or later, in some form or other. The exchange may be one-for-one
object (food for food) or it may be abstract, in the form of public displays of prestige or
respect. We are all both givers and receivers of things, and social life is about how these
relationships of exchange are established and maintained. Mauss’ book was about the gift
giving rituals in various tribes, but it could also be applied to the world of modern day NGO
projects. In this world, donors and recipients are always talking about “partnership” or
“coordination”. It is worth considering these ideas when we think about the so-called “donor
community” or about the continuing problems of “donor coordination” and “sharing of

1. What is a donor?
A donor is any organization who gives something of value, usually money. The organization
can be a government, a private foundation, a person, or an NGO. Donors have no common
ideology. They have no common strategy. They are not a “they”. Understanding each donor’s
strategy is the key to cooperation with them, and to obtaining funds from them. In Kosovo,
with few exceptions, most donors are also FOREIGN donors. This not for the NGO sector
within the EU countries or the USA. In Kosovo, donors are thus givers, but these are also gifts
that cross borders.

2. Donors are not a “they”.
Donors are as different in their goals, interests and organizations as are local NGOs. While
there may be talk of a “donor community” and there may be held “donor coordination
meetings”, the reality is that donors may have very different and even opposing interests.
There is no reason to expect that USAID, UNDP, the EU, the Soros Foundation, Save the
Children or the Ebert Stiftung should all have the same interests or strategies. These interests
derive from different values, priorities, and perceptions of the situation: some donors see
crises and the need for rapid action, even if money is wasted; others say that we should go
“one step at a time” and “build capacity”. There is nothing wrong with these differences.
What is wrong, however, is for local NGOs to assume that all donors have the same views,
perceptions, interests, strategies and organizational operations, and that donors (“they”)
somehow act as a single unit against the local society, “us”. Donors may act in common, and
this happens in specific periods when priorities are set aside for a short time, and where
everyone agrees there is “a crisis”. But when the normal situation resumes, donors will often
be working independently, occasionally cooperating, and often informing each other of what
they are doing, but also competing and even keeping secrets. The typical example is the many
training courses being done all over Kosovo by various donors. Everyone thinks there should
be more training, and they all think they are the best to do it. For local NGOs, the varied
perceptions and interests of donors means that we must have a more refined, nuanced view of
the donors, not as a community or a single actor with a plan, but as a group of organizations
with a common activity—giving money under certain conditions, but with otherwise different
interests. This applies when donors are so diverse as local Kosovo organs, foreign
governments or private businessmen. Local NGOs in Kosovo thus need to know more about
each donor.

3. Every donor has a donor.
Although donors give money away, they almost always are searching for money as well. A
typical donor like Save the Children may have projects in Kosovo with local NGOs, in which
they act like a donor. But Save the Children must also get money from its donors back home,
from the government, private contributors, from members, or from the EU project pool. The
Soros Foundation, a major donor, has its donor, Mr Soros. Mr Soros can therefore decide that
his Foundation should focus on other priorities, and move to Africa or Central Asia (which it
has). Even the biggest donors, EU, USAID, GTZ, DANIDA, also have their donors:
Governments/ministries. These governments/ministries have their donors, the
parliament/Congress…which has its donor, the taxpayers, us. The UN Mission in Kosovo
(UNMIK), UNHCR and OSCE are donors, but they also must do their own fundraising with
their donors in the corridors of New York, Brussels, Geneva, Vienna, etc. This means that
every donor operates with two faces: one looking down at its recipients, the other looking
upwards at its donor. For those at the very bottom, the Kosovo local organizations seeking
funds, it is important to remember that the donor is constantly turning its face in both
directions. It must administer its money to the recipient, but it must also show its donor that it
is efficient. This double task means that donors tend to choose partners who can make this
second job easier. That is, donors will tend to choose “partners” (recipients) who make them
look good to their donor back home.

4. Donors are everywhere.
Donors are not simply large international organizations, governments or foreign millionaires.
They can also be right under our noses. Members of an organization who pay a membership
fee each month can operate as donors, with corresponding rights and obligations. In Kosovo,
there are many organizations who say they have hundreds or members. But members pay
nothing. If each member paid one Euro per month…..equal to a pack of cigarettes!, the
organization would have hundreds of Euros per month and could be partly autonomous.
Donors can also be local businessmen or groups of businessmen, or as is often the case in the
West, the wives of businessmen. Of course, such individuals should receive appreciation for
their efforts, and since some businessmen have big egos, it may be enough to name a project
after them, while in other cases the businessman might want to be on the board of the
recipient NGO. This is a matter of negotiation. School children can be donors when they
conduct campaigns or do voluntary work. And donors can donate things instead of
money…In the West, people often donate children’s clothing or old computers. Some of this
may not be useful, but much of it can help. In almost all countries there are associations of
blood donors; in the West this may be done for free, as part of a community effort. The point
of these examples is only to show that donors are not just large organizations far away. They
may be closer to us than we think.

5. Foreign Donors always leave
Donors have strategies and priorities. This means that these will change with changing
conditions. One of these conditions is to be “relevant”, to be where the action is. This is how
donors impress their own donors. Thus, it is normal for foreign donors to go into new trouble
spot areas, or newly opened areas. In 1996 many foreign donors came to Bosnia, later on, they
went to Republika Srbska in Eastern Bosnia, then they went to Kosovo, now they are going to
Serbia and Afghanistan, and some day they will go to Chechnya or China. This is a natural
process and need not be interpreted as a “betrayal” or broken promise. An effective donor has
a strategy when they enter the country, and if they are doing their job correctly, they also have
a schedule of priorities when they operate, and an exit strategy as well. Local NGOs can be
part of this exit strategy, since many international donors/NGOs often create or support local
organizations when they leave, a process which some people call “cloning”. However, it is
naive for local NGOs to think that foreign donors will always be there.

6. Donors operate with inadequate information.
Donors, and the people who work for them both in the home office and in the field, are like
the rest of us. They have a vague idea of what is going on, a general idea of a problem they
want to address, and a certain amount of resources---people, money, equipment, knowledge,
time, experience—in which to do their job. Some donors have more of these resources than
others. Some donors have more money and not much experience; others have experience but
not so much time or staff. Some donors think they can operate everywhere in the same way:
what worked in Peru or in Bosnia, should also work in Kosovo. This may or may not be true,
but the important thing is that some donors think it is true. Donors can see what they want to
see: the “cup” of possibilities can be either half full or half empty. A donor who sees another
donor leave (for whatever reason) may think, “Well, maybe we should leave, too”. Donors are
as subjective as the rest of us, and they are under pressure to disguise their subjectivity as
objective evaluations.

7. Much of donors’ inadequate information comes from locals.
One often hears that “donors talk only to each other”. In fact, it often happens that donors
obtain ideas about a country from their local staff or from those they meet on a field trip. Very
often these local staff, leaders, activists or citizens are unclear about what is going on in their
own country. It is quite normal for local citizens or NGO activists to talk only to their own
friends and to those who agree with them; local social networks are often as limited or
distorted as our own. It is often the case that a donor will hear from a local partner: “We are a
good NGO, all the others are opportunists”. If the donor representatives hears this from
everyone, it leaves the impression that all local NGO people are opportunists or jealous.

8. Donors have their own interests.
Donors may want to give money to local NGOs, but they also want to ensure that their own
interests are being served. These interests may be articulated openly, such as “building civil
society” or “helping handicapped children”, but there are often other interests which are
unclear or even contradictory. A typical set of contradictory interests is that donors want local
NGOs to be “independent” and “responsible”, but that they act as if the local NGOs are their
“children”: they want to control all their decisions and demand detailed expense reports every
month, and that “everything must be in English”. The result is “micromanaging” or simply
too much control. In a good project, the interests of the donor may overlap with the recipient
NGOs. Often, however, there are different interests and even conflicts. It is important that
these become clear so that the common activity can be negotiated. Donors and NGOs can
even have very different interests and still be effective.

9. There are no pure gifts
Every donation, no matter how good hearted, carries with it a relationship of reciprocity.
Giving is a power relationship, and the receiving person/organization, in order to receive the
money, must show respect, thankfulness, openness, or they must give the money back. Giving
entails giving-back. Every donor expects something in return, just like parents who give
everything to their children expect that their children will appreciate them.

10. Giving money is a power relationship.
People who donate money to others deserve to know what is happening to their money. This
is because their donors want to know. While donors may speak of “partnership”, in
formulating or running a project, it is clear that in some ways the partners are not equal. One
organization, usually a foreign donor, gives money and sets conditions; the other
organizations, usually a local NGO, receives money and must abide by these conditions. The
framework for these conditions is negotiable, but receiving money from a donor always
entails some kind of dependence or obligations.

11. Power relationships mean negotiation.
Just because donors are more powerful as concerns resources does not mean that things
cannot be negotiated. A typical example is a donor who has a lot of money, while the local
NGO has more staff, better information and engagement. The donor cannot achieve its goals
(to its donor) without the local NGO. This makes for a kind of cooperation in which both the
donor and the local NGO can benefit. There is nothing wrong with seeing this relationship as
one of negotiation, and even of “contract”. A contract is a set of rights and obligations.
Donors clearly have rights: the right to demand that their money be used according to their
mission and in an accountable way. Donors should also have obligations: to make their
mission clear, to be transparent in their goals, to show trust in the recipient, not to allow
applicants to compete with each other in an unfair manner, to disburse the funds promptly and
without bureaucratic complications, to treat local NGOs like junior partners but not like little,
irresponsible children. This means also that local NGOs must not see donors as “parents” who
can solve all their problems, but as objects of negotiation. Eventually, local NGOs need to
learn even how to say “No” to a donor’s grant. Donations can, and should, be negotiated.
Regrettably, this happens all too rarely.

12. Some donors have more than just money.
The most obvious resource that donors have which distinguishes them from local NGOs is
money. Since most donors (at present) are also FOREIGN donors, it means that they are
involved in international networks for planning, strategy, funding, priorities, meetings, etc.
The information resources of a donor may be obtained formally, in meetings or training
courses, but also informally in everyday contacts or invitations to events. Some local
businessmen in Kosovo are also donors, but they do not have these kinds of foreign contacts.
In other words, a local businessman giving 10.000 dollars to a project may not be as important
as an international organization such as Save the Children giving 1000 dollars. This is because
the smaller money from Save the Children may eventually lead to additional money, contacts,
training possibilities, etc. or to information about additional money. For the long term,
however, the most important and most reliable source of donors are ordinary citizens
(member fees), national governments and local businessmen; these are the key donors for
NGOs in all Western countries. Foreign donors will always be attracted to local organizations
which are well grounded in their societies, and can demonstrate their local roots.

13. Donors are often naive
There are some donors who tend to criticize local NGOs for being inefficient, slow or
ineffective. Often these criticisms are based on a comparison of how things work in Kosovo
and how things work back home in Western Europe or the U.S. This comparison is inadequate
for two reasons. First, the local situation in Kosovo cannot be directly compared to the
situation in the West. Back in Denmark, where I live, nothing would be effective if people
there worked in cold offices or lost electricity for hours each day, if money was handled in
cash and if there were no banks, if phones, faxes and email did not always work, things would
also go slowly. If everything done in a Danish office had to be translated into English (as so
many things are done in Kosovo), or if everything done in an English speaking office had to
be translated back into Danish, as is also the case in the EU, then of course things would go
slowly. More importantly, these comparisons are false because they are based on how things
work IDEALLY at home and how things REALLY work in the field (here, Kosovo). In fact,
ideal situations do not exist, not even at home. The proper comparison is how things really
work at home and how things really work in the field. Everyone knows that Kosovo
organizations can be inefficient in starting or running projects, raising money, gathering
information, even making a donors manual like this one. But no one in Kosovo knows that in
the efficient West, such projects may take even longer, the problems may become more
complicated, the intrigues and bureaucracy even worse. We tend to remember the efficient
examples at home and forget how the system really works back home. In Denmark, where I
happen to live, people do not return phone calls, faxes get lost, money takes weeks to go from
one office to another, a few centimeters of snow can close down the transport system, e-mail
systems can break down, secretaries are out to lunch, chiefs are traveling abroad, people go
home because their kids are sick, no one works after 5pm, reports never get read, money has
to be used by December 31st, and no decisions are made from December 15 to January 5th, or
during the entire month of July. All too many projects are overpriced, underused, or money
wasted. Things in Denmark also work on personal networks of friends, family, school friends,
political affiliations, colleagues…just like in Kosovo. Like Kosovo, the most important
resource is not money but information. And like in Kosovo, there are friends and enemies,
and people remember who are their friends and who are their enemies. Finally, it is not
enough to say that things in Denmark, or in Brussels, can be slow. As we all know, they are
both slow and extraordinarily expensive. The “waste of money” in projects in Kosovo is
nothing compared to the waste carried out by donor organizations in extra studies, failure to
make decisions on time, general bureaucratic resistance, waiting time, useless expensive trips,
consulting reports that are never used, software systems which break down, trained staff who
then leave, etc. Field offices of donor organizations in Kosovo or elsewhere may seem
effective because their computers have generators and the staff are there from 9 to 5. And they
may in fact be effective, with dedicated staff working under difficult conditions. But anyone
with real knowledge of a donor organization’s head office knows how much inefficiency there
is. Donors in Kosovo either do not hear about this because they are in the field, or they have
conveniently forgotten. Finally, in the NGO sector, it is often the case that those assisting
NGOs in Kosovo are not really aware of how NGOs really work in their home countries. It is
these factors which produce wholly unrealistic comparisons between Western and Kosovo
organisations. Kosovars who might spend a week in the West visiting flagship organizations
for two hours, on a study trip arranged by the donors, do not acquire the understanding of this

Advice for dealing with donors. Donors are important people who should be treated
correctly and honestly. They spend a lot of their time with people asking them for money, so
donors are understandably suspicious. This is normal and should be acceptable. A donor who
is not suspicious may become a victim of some NGOs who misuse the money. So you should
begin with the premise that the donor is suspicious.

14. Fundraising Rule 1: donors like engaged people.
Donors have their own projects, some personal/private, others official. Donors like to deal
with people who resemble themselves, who have the same interests and passions. Many donor
decisions to give money are often based on these subjective factors. This means that donors
are not simply making cold calculations. They need the calculations and plans to justify their
decisions, but these are not necessarily the background for these decisions. In meeting and
dealing with local NGOs, donors also need to get “good vibrations”, good feelings that they
are doing the right thing. Donors are looking for passion among NGOs, even if the passion
cannot be measured.

15. Rule 2: Nothing replaces a personal experience
Donors have many meetings. They are usually with two kinds of people. One is with other
donors in which they obtain information about what the donor community is doing, who is
supporting which donor, what kind of priorities exist, etc. The other meeting is with possible
“partners”, those who might benefit from the donor’s money; these are the local NGOs and
others seeking money. (Few people understand that when a donor representative visits
Kosovo, they must also return home to contact their own donor who is controlling them).
Since donors have many meetings, they have to prioritize, and it is usually the organizations
seeking money who have lowest priority in time. Donors always have time for other donors or
political organs who can make life easy for donors (UNMIK, OSCE, UNHCR, the minister of
X, etc.). On the other hand, donors may be always busy when it comes to meeting NGOs who
want money. Time is money. But time is also power. Since donor representatives have so
many meetings, it is important that a meeting with an NGO seeking money obtains a personal
touch. It is a symbolic expression of the whole NGO. I always recommend that the NGO try
to take the donor to visit an ongoing project, away from the office, or a visit to someone’s
home. This gives the donor representative an opportunity to see real people doing real things;
the talk of money and projects can come later. And since donor representatives always eat in
restaurants where the food, even if it is good, is most probably the same, and the people in the
restaurants also the same, the best way for donor representatives to have a genuine
“experience” is for them to eat at someone’s home. At home, with a Kosovar family, the food
will taste better, the atmosphere different, the people friendlier, and most important, you will
not be interrupted. Because in restaurants or hotels, donors always meet other donors, and
NGOs may be meeting your own friends or competitors. The strategy, then, is to create that
personal experience. It may never happen again.

16. Rule 3: Donors like people who speak their language.
Donor representatives usually speak two languages: English and “project speak”. English is
important because the donor can relax, and can use the many technical terms like “civil
society”, “NGO”, “capacity building”, “training of trainers”, “fund raising” or “cofinancing”.
This is not really English. Most English-speaking people do not walk around speaking this
way. This is “project speak”, and it is knowledge of these terms which releases money. It is
important to know not only what these terms mean, but also how to use them without being
superficial. For example, donors would much rather hear about what kinds of skills people do
not know, what the needs are, and only later should you talk about “setting up a TOT course”,
a SWOT analysis or some other project. Donors are primarily interested in needs. Once you
agree on the needs and priorities, once you and the donor agree on things, then money can
flow much easier.

Conclusions: Anyone who thinks that they know what is happening in the “donor landscape”
is deluding themselves. The donor landscape is constantly changing, and everyone in it suffers
from inadequate information, subjective ideas, different values and flexible priorities which
often have their source beyond the local conditions. What we can do realistically is to
understand the conditions under which donor organizations and representatives work and to
utilize donor resources in the most effective way.

Comments/critique to:

Steven Sampson
Dept of Social Anthropology
Lund University
Lund, Sweden
Originally written in Prishtina, January 2001
Revised: January 2003.

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