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What I've learned: Ewa Wojkowska, cofounder COO of NGO Kopernik

Jakarta Post - November 22, 2022

Zack Petersen, Jakarta – Kopernik, arguably one of Indonesia's most impressive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), typically has more than 20 different programs running at any time across the archipelago, finding what works in addressing the social and environmental challenges facing Indonesia today by experimenting with potential solutions.

Using lean experimentation, simple technology and behavioral science principles, all supported by data and evidence, Kopernik is on the cutting edge of development, working in some of the most remote places on the planet.

But money doesn't grow on trees, and Kopernik's work needs funding. Ewa Wojkowska, the NGO's cofounder and chief operating officer, shares her thoughts on this and other related issues.

I think we NGOs, as a sector, are generally quite bad at communicating the urgency of the problems that need to be solved. Climate change is a good example. One reason for this is because the work that needs to be done to fix these problems is not "sexy". These issues need to become mainstream. Everyone needs to be part of the solution.

We NGOs are working on fixing stuff that is broken. We're talking about major issues – climate change, malnutrition, air and marine plastic pollution, poverty – the problems are so big. But there's a massive trust deficit toward the organizations working on fixing them.

The power dynamic in the development sector needs to change. Donors have to trust the organizations on the front lines that are doing the hard work. The power imbalance between those in control of the money and those that do the work is such that NGOs are too scared to speak up for fear of losing funding.

The development sector tends to be risk-averse in testing different methods and emerging solutions, and most NGOs don't have the resources to test new ways of solving the problems they are working on. We want to support the research and development (R&D) process and work with others in the sector to find more effective solutions that can then be implemented at a larger scale.

This work really excites me. Does that make me a nerd? Probably. Nerds are cool. We love nerds at Kopernik.

Our sector is where innovation is most needed, but there's such limited space for it because we are continuously working on raising funds to keep our programs going. Right now, I spend 75 percent of my time proposal writing, and we are all out there competing for the same, limited pool of funds. It's like the NGO "Hunger Games".

There's no simple fix for these systemic problems. Making real impact takes time; it requires trust and building meaningful relationships. These problems are not going to be solved in six months or a year. They require time, and people and money.

It's people [that] do the work to solve these problems – smart, committed, passionate people doing very difficult work. But overheads and [employee] salaries are dirty words in the nonprofit sector. There's this myth that overheads are bad, but without them it's like wanting to build a house and paying for everything except the construction workers. There are progressive funders who are very supportive and understand what it takes to do this work, but overall there remains a severe lack of trust in the sector.

I do think 16-year-old me would be proud of me. I'm very lucky to be doing work that is genuinely rewarding and fulfilling. She would be proud of me for not taking that job at the big consulting firm when I was 25 and sticking to my values, and she would be proud of me and Toshi [Nakamura, Kopernik cofounder and CEO] for canceling our trip to Cuba in 2009 and instead spending our holiday in our apartment in New York to create Kopernik and leave our jobs at the United Nations.

I've lived in Bali with my family for 12 years. Why Bali? [...] When Toshi and I decided to start Kopernik, as we were figuring out where to base the organization, the conversation always led back to Indonesia. We both had a strong connection and love for the country, having lived and worked here for several years.

Constantly looking for funding to keep our work going definitely keeps me awake more often than is healthy. I know we will figure things out, because we have to. I've learned to worry about what I can control and that there are things I simply can't control. I now have perspective and know that what I am worrying about today will no longer be an issue in two months. That's been a big learning [point] for me.

My team probably teaches me more than I do them. I do hope, however, that through Kopernik we are creating an environment where everyone feels they are making a positive and meaningful contribution toward solving the social and environmental challenges we are tackling. I have always wanted Kopernik to be a place where everyone feels motivated, respected, [and] recognized, where we can have fun and be the best versions of ourselves while we push ourselves to solve some of the most complex problems out there.

I don't believe that donors have bad intent, but the donor-NGO dynamic is outdated, unfair and unhealthy. If we are to be effective at addressing social and environmental challenges, then donors need to be equal partners with NGOs. This includes simplifying grantmaking and reporting processes so we can focus on the work, especially for the smaller frontline organizations that are doing the hardest work. Stop restricting what we can and can't spend on, and please stop expecting miracles with small grants.

Please don't ask NGOs how a program is going to be sustainable after a six-month grant of US$10,000. It's not realistic. The honest answer to that question is that we are going to keep looking for more funding to continue the work, because this work takes time. Don't ask NGOs how our work on poverty alleviation, women's empowerment, social inequalities and environmental protection are going to be fully sustainable and scale after a one-year grant period. Most of it won't be. If it were, we wouldn't have these problems to begin with, and [...] not everything has to scale.

If you don't trust the NGO you are supporting, you may want to rethink your partnership. NGOs go through many due diligence processes, regular audits, and have to meet the highest levels of transparency and accountability. And if you have found an NGO that you trust, one that is trusted in the community, has a track record of delivering good work, then please provide them with unrestricted funding. Their work has never been more important than it is now.

[What I've Learned is a column that presents candid interviews with policymakers, artists, activists and businesspeople on facing challenges and making a difference.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/culture/2022/11/22/what-ive-learned-ewa-wojkowska-cofounder-coo-of-ngo-kopernik.html