As the leader of a young non-profit organization, I have always struggled to answer two questions that I am asked on a regular basis. The first question is, “How is your organization going to change Honduras?” My challenge is not one of a lack of vision for a better future, but rather a philosophical belief that organizations don’t change countries. For many years, wonderful organizations around the world have sought to “change” poor families, communities, and countries, yet these changes have fallen short in so many areas.

The second question I have difficulty answering is, “As the leader, what are the organization’s plans for the future?” While many respectable experts on leadership in non-profit organizations (Peter Drucker, for example) have argued that planning is one of the things that sets apart great organizations from the mediocre, I frequently feel unsettled with providing the “textbook” answer. Shouldn’t the needs of Honduran citizens dictate the plans of the organization rather than the organization predicting the needs of those it exists to serve?

I recently picked up a copy of William Easterly’s book titled, “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.” Easterly has 16 years of experience as a senior economics official in the World Bank, and currently works as a professor of economics at NYU. After enjoying the introduction on a flight from the U.S. back to Honduras, I am beginning to feel much more comfortable with my level of discomfort regarding the two questions above.

In the introduction to his thought-provoking text, Easterly writes about the difference between “Planners” and “Searchers” in the field of economic development. He argues that the problem with development is that the world has too many Planners, and not enough Searchers. Following is a brief description of Easterly’s comparison of Planners and Searchers.

  • Planners frequently have good intentions, yet rarely motivate anyone to carry them out. Searchers find things that are working, and creatively implement them into their context.
  • Planners raise expectations, but take little responsibility in actually meeting them. Searchers take responsibility for their actions.
  • Planners determine what to supply. Searchers ask what is in demand.
  • Planners apply global blueprints. Searchers adapt to local conditions.
  • Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom. Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom.
  • Planners think they already have all the answers. Searchers recognize the social, political, historical, institutional, and technological complexities of poverty and admit there is no single answer.

I want Leadership Mission International to represent the Searchers. I want to be a Searcher. The world has enough large organizations, institutions, and national governments trying to solve poverty through planning. In fact, over the past 50 years, more than $2.3 trillion has been spent on foreign aid, yet poverty remains one of the greatest problems the world faces today. Instead of trying to change communities and entire countries, non-profit organizations must meet the demands of their local communities through empowering nationals to initiate change.

So the next time someone asks me how Leadership Mission International will change Honduras, or what is the organization’s master plan for 2020, he/she shouldn’t be surprised when I respond with a confused look or blank stare and simply reply, “Let’s wait and see.” Don’t get me wrong, I spend hours every week analyzing our mission, casting a vision for a better future, developing new ideas and projects that will make us more successful, and doing all the other things successful non-profit leaders do. But I don’t want those things to get in the way of becoming a flexible organization that responds to the ever-changing needs of those we exist to serve.

I hope you will consider partnering with us as we empower Hondurans to be the instruments of change throughout their country, and I hope you join us as we strive to become better Searchers in the quest of playing a small role in some significant changes in the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. Check back soon for my continued thoughts on “The White Man’s Burden” as I continue to make my way through this great text.

Joseph Rahm
Executive Director
Leadership Mission International