A Framework for Effective and Efficient Collaboration with Locally-led Development Partners

For nearly a century, donor-driven development has struggled to create sustainable change in the Global South. Today, funders realize the key to improving community self-reliance lies in healthy collaboration with beneficiary communities.

As funders get closer to the communities they assist, they increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their efforts to assist communities. Communities take ownership for the outcomes of development efforts when they are given agency to shape those efforts.

The challenge, then, is how to collaborate with rural communities in the Global South. How do we maintain financial management standards when our partners have limited formal education or training? How do we deliver projects according to design, budget, and schedule without a permanent in-country presence? How do we listen through language and cultural barriers?

For the last seven years, Better Lives and the Wade Family Charitable Foundation (WFCF) have collaborated to develop a framework for sustainable rural development. WFCF provided funding and Better Lives managed operations and codified lessons learned into a framework for rural development. The framework is the result of our experiences collaborating with locally-run organizations in East Africa and Southeast Asia. We assist these organizations to implement sustainable programs that enable children to grow up healthy, educated, and trained to earn an income.

Our framework helps foundations build relationships and assist communities as they take a leading role in their development. It is guided by three key principles: Collaborative, Holistic, Sustainable. As you read about specific tools and process, you will notice these three principles guide all of our actions. The framework is applicable to organizations who collaborate with underserved rural communities. The four stages we use to create strong partnerships are:

   1. Identify and Develop Partners
   2. Manage with Appropriate Governance Tools
   3. Develop Organization and Leadership
   4. Create a Path to Self-Reliance

Below is a summary of each stage. These concepts have enabled Better Lives to work directly with members of the communities we want to assist. Closer collaboration is not only more effective and efficient. It is also more fulfilling as we build friendships with our local partners.

Keep reading to learn more about our framework. We encourage all foundations doing international development work to consider how they can enable communities to be equal partners in the mission to create sustainable change for future generations.


1. Identify and Develop Partners

“… the right people in the right seats…” – Jim Collins, Good to Great

People are the foundation of successful projects and programs. Funding organizations must be adept at identifying and developing people with the will and ability to collaborate effectively. Better Lives uses a four-stage approach based on the concept of Small Sustainable Steps. Small Sustainable Steps reduce risk for funding organizations by testing the strength of their relationships incrementally. Issues and weaknesses are identified and addressed before significant funds have been committed. Better Lives’ uses the stages Identifying, Qualifying, Designing, and Implementing to build the organizational infrastructure to support sustainable development.

Partne On-Board Chart


2. Manage with Appropriate Governance Tools

“Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident.” – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, 11th President of India

You have identified the locally-run organization you want to work with. Together, you have defined the symptoms and root causes of poverty and implemented programs to address the root causes. It’s time to ensure the projects and programs you support are protected with sound governance tools and operating processes. Better Lives’ uses a core governance process organized into four categories: Plan, Do, Check, and Act:


Planning tools include:

  • Prioritization matrix to prioritize improvement ideas based on impact and urgency
  • Approval process to build shared design, budget, and schedule expectations
  • Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, Informed (ARCI) matrix to define roles and responsibilities
  • Financial forecast templates for projects, programs, income-generating activities, organizations, and grantee portfolios


“Do” tools define the agreed quality specifications (design, budget, and schedule) for work to be funded and completed. Better Lives uses an Order Form to document quality specifications. Each foundation must find the funding and reporting cycle that is right for them. Better Lives encourages a two-week cycle and informal reporting via WhatsApp and email. Shorter periods support closer collaboration and reduce time spent on administrative activities.


Checking that work is done according to design, budget, and schedule and confirming that all funds are accounted for is critical to sound financial management. Better Lives uses appropriate technology that enables partner organizations to submit receipts and deliverable photos from their phones directly into our database. We can quickly check that funds are accounted for, confirm work is completed according to quality specifications, and provide feedback and improvement ideas. Our accounting templates take basic expense information and generate robust reports for IRS reporting and financial management.


Better Lives uses a 5-step approval process to make it easy for local organizations to propose continuous quality improvement ideas. We encourage our partners to consider how they can improve at the end of each order period and project. They develop their ideas through a 5-step process:

  • Propose Improvement Concept
  • Specify Rough Order of Magnitude Quality
  • Finalize Design Details
  • Finalize Budget Details
  • Finalize Schedule Details


3. Develop Organization and Leadership

“You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.” – Amelia Earhart

Better Lives’ strategy is to enable local organizations to deliver benefits to their communities independently. This autonomy requires developing organizational and financial sustainability.

We develop organizational sustainability by sharing best-practices from our library of management procedures. We share procedures in the context of challenges and opportunities partner organizations are experiencing in real-time. Lessons directly applied are lessons remembered and over time local leaders gain the tools to identify problems, implement solutions, and maintain those solutions independently.

Each community is faced with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Focusing on management procedures, instead of specific skills, gives local organizations the flexibility to address a range of current and future situations.


4. Create a Path to Self-Reliance

“Philanthropists should find innovations that release the energies of people. Individuals don’t want to be taken care of – they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential.” – Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder of The Acumen Fund

You have identified and developed a capable local partner organization. You have systems in place to manage your collaboration. You have invested time in developing your local partner’s capacity and now you are ready to expand your partnership. Better Lives’ “Path to Self-Reliance” assists local organizations to check that communities are supported along six stages.

We believe that communities with sufficient infrastructure along each stage have the best chance at supporting children to grow up healthy, educated, and trained to earn an income and contribute to a sustainable future. The Path to Self-Reliance can help you understand what gaps to fill with future project and programs. The six stages on the Path to Self-Reliance are:

  • Access Resources
  • Apply Knowledge
  • Strengthen Health
  • Earn Income
  • Improve Home
  • Enhance Education


These concepts can amplify the impact of your foundation’s work.

We began codifying our experiences into a framework so we could continually improve it, make it repeatable, and expand the number of communities and children we work with. To that end, we are interested in assisting other foundations to apply this framework to their work so they can collaborate with communities that have limited organizational infrastructure.
Please contact us at sam.barns@betterlives.org if you would like to discuss how these concepts could enable your foundation to leverage your resources and build sustainable local relationships.